Analysis “Someone out there must have a family,” Panos Panay remarked yesterday, surveying his audience of potato-shaped gadget bloggers. An optimistic view, I thought. Panay was presenting Microsoft’s Devices event in New York, an event designed to get bloggers’ juices running.
And boy, it did.
Years ago, I was in a MacWorld audience for a Steve Jobs keynote, where the fans even applauded a price increase. But this was far more hysterical. I suspect Microsoft execs had prepared for the event by watching Team America World Police. Several times they told us how “pumped” they were. Thanks for sharing – we might have guessed by the veins throbbing, Hulk-style, on your temples. Maybe next year the Microsoft Devices Event will simply be called, “Surface, Fuck Yeah!” That’s really what this year’s should have been called, it was so aggressive, and single-minded.
Partly this is a function of changes in the tech media. 15 years ago the tech press attending Microsoft presentations wore the same generic uniform as the presenters: a regulation blue Gap shirt (no tie) tucked into Chinos. Now that so many publications have gone, taking the cooler and more analytical voices with them, the audience is predominantly poorly paid, hormonal and adolescent. Some even write for no pay at all – events like this are their big thrill. So the timbre has changed too.
Let’s look past the chest-beating and testosterone, though, and see what we really learned.
This was a hardware event, and it had an explicit goal and an unspoken one. The obvious goal was to showcase Microsoft’s hardware, not counting Xbox. The unspoken goal was to hide the software, which is in (to put it kindly) a stage of transition. Microsoft achieved both, managing to hide Windows 10 almost completely. Phew!
How Surface events used to be.
How Surface events are now
Whatever you do, don't TOUCH the Lumia
But pity the poor old phones team. This was the formal unveiling of the first new high-end Lumia phones since the $7.2bn acquisition of Nokia’s devices unit… and its subsequent $7.6bn writedown. These are the first really new flagships in almost two years. The conundrum: what to do with something Microsoft doesn’t really want to keep, but can’t be seen to dispense with entirely, just yet? As we predicted, the two Lumia flagships got a brief turn in the spotlight, but were overshadowed by the revamped Surface range.
There were no new software surprises, although there are surprises large and small in store – Astoria and call recording for example. We didn’t get to see any images captured with the new Lumia cameras, which I can’t remember at a flagship phone event, ever. Since Nokia had used Windows Phone as a vehicle to showcase ground-breaking mobile imaging (with hardware optical image stabilization (OIS), and its superdense oversampling sensors), the omission was really striking. The new Lumias might have fantastic cameras, but who can tell?
As everyone already knew from leaks, the two 950s weren’t really eye-catching designs, or really showcases for advanced new technology like PureView. Something else was odd, too. The time spent interacting with a Lumia itself, directly, was about 10 seconds. At times an exec held a Lumia in the hand for the camera – but was careful not to touch it.
If you’ve been following the Windows 10 mobile builds, you’ll know why. It’s nowhere near ready for general release, and the W10M feature set is a regression on existing Windows Phone.
One feature was demonstrated at length – Continuum. This allows you, in theory, to dispense with a laptop and using a dongle, use your phone as a surrogate Windows machine. It’s a terrific demo: we saw how the phone’s apps adapt to their new input and larger screen by offering a richer but still familiar Windows UI, and even task switch between PowerPoint and Mail. But few writers have been brave enough to point out that Continuum has only a very limited number of voluntary use cases. Steve Litchfield is one. Most people, he points out, will have a tablet or laptop with them. Thanks largely to er, Microsoft, even a cheap Android tablet will run Microsoft Office. Then there’s the uncertainty and awkwardness of scavenging for an unused “terminal”, and the difficulty of disassembling it, and reassembling it when you’re done. Oh, and you still have to carry a dongle around with you, for now.
I’d add one more reason Continuum is not going to find a significant voluntary market: the stigma. Which employee is going to be glad to hear the words, “We don’t think you’re worth providing with even a rubbish, cheap laptop – have this Lumia and dongle instead. Happy hunting!”. So any enthusiasm for Continuum will probably come from IT managers keen on introducing hot-desking into the organisation. But even then, any savings may be illusory. A cheap laptop costs less than a Lumia 950 XL. Heck, even a Surface 3 with a keyboard ($499 + $129.99) costs less than a Lumia 950 XL ($649).
Surface. Fuck, yeah!
Onto Surface, then. Microsoft talks a lot about the “re-invention” too. “Building on its track record of pioneering new categories, Microsoft is redefining the laptop”, the press release tells us. But over the course of Surface’s life, it’s actually become much more conventional and conservative.
The first two generations of Surfaces, running ARM-based RT, were conceptually much bolder - but nobody bought them. So Surface became a premium, full blown Windows laptop, only with a detachable screen. The fact that you needed to buy your Surface laptop in several parts was just a piece of kidology, and even that pretence ended yesterday, as Microsoft will now sell you the Surface parts in one SKU, called the “Surface Book”.
Yet even the more conventional Surface Pro 3 had three main problems: the price tag, questions about its robustness, and the uselessness of a naked (keyboardless) Surface, since the app and content ecosystem lags so far behind iOS or Android. The market has spoken, and it doesn’t actually mind having multiple devices: households are littered with cheap Tesco or Acer ‘droids, and iPads. Schools are too.
Of these three issues, the new Surface Book only really addresses one: the robustness question. A new keyboard comes with a slot so firm it won’t spill from your lap onto the ground. But a Surface on its own remains an expensive and very heavy alternative to a tablet, but without the oceans of content or apps you get on a tablet.
Microsoft is aware of this, and it's acute now that Windows 10 is rather less tablet-like and tablet-friendly than Windows 8. So it tried to convince us of the tablet merits at the “Surface, Fuck Yeah!” event yesterday. A promo video showed a naked Surface being used for music composition. Like Continuum, it was a nice demo. Like Continuum, too, it’s a niche.
Perhaps the success of Surface isn’t an indication of the market endorsing new product categories, so much as it’s an indication of discretionary middle management perks. Gadget perks have replaced car perks. Everyone I know who has a Surface Pro likes it, but in every case they’re either borrowing it, or it was bought for them.
If there’s a stealth winner in the Microsoft devices range, it’s an unlikely hero. It’s the fitness band, Microsoft Band 2. Again this was presented in a turbocharged way, riddled with jargon intended to impress the athlete and sharp-elbowed self actualiser.
I’m hardly the target market, but I thought the first iteration of the Band was very good indeed, and the new one is a genuine all round challenger to clunky wearables. On first sight it’s twice the price of most Fitbits and Fitbit rivals. But these don’t provide notifications, let alone call up an Uber. Even after the price increase, Band 2 actually does a wearable’s key functions for much less (£199) than a good-looking Wear, Apple Watch or Gear S2. ®
Microsoft executives uttered all of the following phrases at the Windows 10 Devices event yesterday - except one. Can you guess which one is the odd one out?
Answer in the Comments below, please.