While Microsoft has struggled in its transition from PCs to devices, this week's releases of Windows 8.1 and Surface 2 suggest that the firm's strategy is sound: Give 1.5 billion PC users a path forward into the post-PC world.
The rationale here is obvious: Users are moving away from PCs regardless of Microsoft's machinations, so why not embrace the change rather than let others control the future? As you know, the firm's solution is to evolve Windows with a new platform I call Metro that will for now sit side-by-side with the legacy Windows desktop. This gives users access to the old and the new during this time of transition and is one of many "hybrid" approaches that Microsoft currently offers across its many products.
And say what you will about Microsoft generally or this strategy specifically, but it's in keeping with the firm's long-term belief that it bests serves customers by providing these paths forward, rather than abruptly cancelling support for legacy technologies.
I assume you're at least passingly familiar with these trends. What I'd like to focus on this week are the back-to-back releases of Windows 8.1 and Surface 2, both of which make up for some mistakes from last year.
As its name suggests, Windows 8.1 is essentially an evolutionary update to Windows 8, a combination of new platform features, fit and finish updates, and new versions of the Metro-style apps that debuted last year to some derision. This time around, Microsoft has achieved something I'd normally consider impossible in delivering a version of Windows 8 that can be optimized semi-seamlessly for both traditional PCs users who will stick to the desktop environment as well as tablet/hybrid PC users who would naturally like to stay in the touch-first Metro environment.
This is a fine line to walk, and if you ever used Windows Mobile 6.5, you know how such efforts can quickly backfire on the user. In that release of Microsoft's previous mobile phone platform, a glossy new touch-based front-end quickly fell apart when you needed to perform anything other than a very basic task. And the underlying UIs were built for pin-prick styluses, not fingers.
That's what Windows 8 was like too, but in both directions. Those with traditional PCs were often confronted by a touch-based UI that was both unwelcome and unavoidable. And those with tablets often found themselves carefully digging around in a desktop environment that didn't work well with touch. It was kind of the worst of both worlds.
For Windows 8.1, Microsoft is proudly patting itself on the back for listening to customers, though I feel compelled to point out that some of us were sounding the alarm on the original Windows 8 design for at least a year before it shipped. But whatever: Windows 8.1 does indeed address the most pressing issues with its predecessor. And what the heck, it's a free update.
But at its heart, Windows 8.1 has the same goal as did Windows 8: Provide a new Windows version for users of traditional desktop PCs and new hybrid PCs that gets them familiar with, and ready for, the new Windows.
And that's where Surface 2 comes in.
Available by the time you read this, Microsoft's next-generation Surface devices come in two versions, the Windows RT 8.1-based Surface 2 and the Windows 8.1 Pro-based Surface Pro 2. The latter machine is well-understood: It's an excellent and highly portable PC and an evolutionary update from the previous version.
I'm a bit more intrigued by Surface 2. Consider it a kind of wild card.
The way that Microsoft positions these devices is almost comically simple, but surprising: It feels that most people –individuals, students, business users, whomever—would be better served by Surface 2, which again runs Windows RT 8.1. For those that cannot run Surface 2, those with very particular needs—perhaps a legacy Win32 LOB app, or high-end and complex applications like Photoshop or whatever—can fall back to Surface Pro 2.
This is not the way most of us think of these devices, I bet.
But remember that the world is turning increasingly to tablets and leaving the PC era behind. According to Gartner and IDC, tablet sales will outpace those of PCs within two years as users move inexorably to these simpler and less expensive devices. Surface 2 is Microsoft's play.
Does it make any sense, here in 2013? I think so. Surface 2 erases some of Surface RT's limitations, primarily its abysmal performance. But it doesn't solve some basic platform issues—the lack of apps being the obvious one. So where this device will make the most sense is for those workers who need Microsoft Office—it ships with Surface 2, and all RT devices, for free—a web browser, and not much else. Or perhaps Remote Desktop for that handful of in-house apps.
That's a surprisingly big audience, I bet, and with many businesses rethinking their approach to LOB apps—web apps can work equally well on any platform, after all—it's possible that Surface 2 makes plenty of sense for plenty of businesses. Right now. And what you get in return is a device that will never slow down, and never be infected with malware. It balances the desire of users to have cooler, tablet-type devices with the need of businesses to have those devices by trusted, known and manageable.
Will Surface 2 see more success than its predecessor? We'll see. But what I'm really curious is whether readers think this device can meet their needs. Please let me know.