Bill Gates
Bill Gates shows off Tablet PCs at COMDEX in Las Vegas on November 16, 2003 Jeff Christensen / WireImage / Getty Images

The New Surface Could Be the Tablet Microsoft Has Been Trying to Create Since 1990

May 20, 2014

Microsoft announced a new tablet computer at an event on Tuesday in New York. As its name indicates, the Surface Pro 3 is the third in a line of devices that run full-blown Windows 8, making them newfangled PCs as much as iPad rivals. (I gave a lukewarm review to the first version, and my colleague Jared Newman wrote more enthusiastically about the second one.)

But in a sense, the road to the Surface Pro 3 really goes back to 2000, when Microsoft unveiled a pen-oriented portable computer it called the Tablet PC. Unless you want to start counting in 1990, when it began work on something called Windows for Pen Computing.

No matter how you do the math, the company got interested in the idea of a portable computer with a touchscreen and a pen many, many years before Apple kicked off the modern era of tablets with the iPad. Only the part involving it designing and selling its own hardware is a recent development.

Being prescient about future trends in computing--which Microsoft has often been, dating back to 1975, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen thought there might be a big market for PC software--doesn't automatically mean that you're capable of designing products that vast numbers of people want to use. Windows for Pen Computing, for example, went nowhere. The Tablet PC, which Bill Gates famously predicted would dominate the industry within five years, did not.

As for previous Surfaces, they aren't the flops they're sometimes written off as: Microsoft sold almost a half-billion dollars' worth of tablets and accessories in its last fiscal quarter. But they also aren't the sort of game-changing blockbusters that would lead anyone to think that Microsoft has nailed what a post-PC PC should look like.

Even with the first two Surface Pros, part of the problem is that Microsoft's ambition had usually raced ahead of the technology curve. It's still difficult to cram a potent Intel processor into a thin, quiet device, and to add effective touch and pen features to an operating system with roots as venerable as those of Windows. So the arrival of any new Microsoft tablet always makes me wonder: Is it finally possible to build the device the company has been envisioning all along?

I'm not ready to say anything definitive about the Surface Pro 3, which I haven't seen in person yet. But the gap between vision and reality is clearly shrinking.

Though this new model isn't a radical rethinking of the Surface concept, it nudges the platform in a specific direction--even further away from direct competition with the iPad, and back towards the PC productivity category that was so good to Microsoft for so long. That's the right direction for Surface Pro, and it made perfect sense that the other device onstage as a point of comparison was a 13-inch MacBook Air, not an iPad.

When the company launched the original Surfaces in 2012, it declared that their 10.6" screens, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, were ideal and chosen after rejecting many other sizes. But the Pro 3 has a 12" display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. As Surface honcho Panos Panay explained at today's event, that's reminiscent of a piece of paper. It's also closer in size to a conventional laptop, making Surface more intriguing to folks who are looking for a laptop replacement and found the earlier models too dinky.

The Pro 3's snap-on keyboard accessory--oddly, it still isn't standard equipment--is a Type Cover, with real mechanical keys and a more serious touchpad than previous Surface keyboards. It's designed to fasten to the tablet more securely than earlier models, which--coupled with the new infinitely-adjustable kickstand--should make the Pro 3 a more lap-friendly laptop alternative.

Microsoft will also offer the Surface Pro 3 with a choice of Intel processors: Core i3, i5 or i7. That's unusual for a tablet, but standard practice for a user-configurable PC. As are accoutrements such as the docking station and Ethernet adapter the company will offer.

Software-wise, the product launch reflected Microsoft's recent efforts to reassure Windows users that the operating system's classic desktop mode is alive and well, not something the company envisions as being replaced by the new-style Metro interface anytime soon. We got a tantalizing peek at a version of Photoshop that ran in desktop mode but featured tweaks to make it work better with touch and pen input, for instance--something likely far more interesting to more Photoshop aficionados than a stripped-down, fully Metro-ized Photoshop would be.

I don't yet have an opinion on some of the most important things about Surface Pro 3, such as how easy it is to work with the pen, which is based on technology from a company called N-trig rather than the Wacom tech in the first two Surface Pros. (I've tried to take notes with a pen using an infinite number of Windows-based devices in the past and it's never felt anywhere as natural as it does with a pad of actual dead-tree paper, which Microsoft rightly says is the benchmark.)

Also: I continue to be confused by something I already complained about four paragraphs back: Why doesn't Microsoft include the keyboard with the Surface?

Yes, making it optional helps bring the starting price down--the Pro 3 starts at $799--and allows buyers to choose between multiple keyboard options, such as ones in a variety of colors. But given that the click-on keyboard has been Surface's defining feature from the start, not bundling it muddies the message. And the more Microsoft focuses on pitching Surface Pro as a complete laptop replacement, the muddier the message feels.

Still, I'm glad that Microsoft has taken three whacks at the Surface Pro concept in a little over a year and a half. If the Surface Pro 3 (or the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Pro 5) is a winner, it won't just help convince skeptics that the company's decision to start making its own computers was smart. It will also mean that the Tablet PC vision Bill Gates himself preached beginning in the last century wasn't the misfire it's often seemed to be--just a good idea that took an uncommonly long time to become reality.

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