Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is many things. It's thinner, it's faster; it's all of the superlatives that come when you out a New and Improved version of anything tech. It, along with the absence of a Surface Mini, is also a white flag. Microsoft has finally accepted that Surface can't take on the iPad. But it might just be able to take the MacBook Air.
The rumor mill before today's Surface event pointed squarely at a smaller Surface tablet, positioned directly against Apple's iPad Mini. That would have made sense, were Microsoft truly committed to tilting at the iPad's windmills. They've got a small tablet? We've got a small tablet—with a small keyboard. If you're going to fight a hopeless war, might as well attack on all fronts.
We didn't get a Surface Mini, though. Instead we got what might better be described as a Surface Mega. Its 12-inch screen places it squarely in the laptop world, instead of the sort-of-fat-tablet dimensions of previous Surfaces. Its keyboard is bigger, its touchpad is better. It costs about a grand. This isn't an iPad you can toss a keyboard onto. This is a MacBook Air you can strip the keyboard from. And that makes all the difference.
Update: Bloomberg reports that Microsoft did, in fact, have a Surface Mini ready to go, but decided to kill it in advance of today's presentation because it "wasn't different enough from rivals and probably wouldn't be a hit." Which is to say, they surrendered that space.
By ditching the Surface Mini, and instead pitting the Surface Pro 3 more squarely against the MacBook Air, Microsoft puts itself in a position to score plenty of small victories. It's lighter! It's thinner! You can write on it with a pen-like stylus! It's also effective expectation management. When you pick up the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 in tablet mode, you don't think it feels like a giant tablet. You think, hey, for a laptop this thing's surprisingly small and light.
It's an overdue shift. The original vision of the Surface was that it would be a tablet-plus, Microsoft's champion in the tablet tourney. Surface RT, in particular, was targeted directly at the iPad, putting up a stripped-down operating system and a 10.2-inch display against iOS and the 9.7-inch iPad. Throw on a keyboard cover (for a price!) and you've got yourself the future of computing. Why buy an iPad, Microsoft's pitch seemed to be, when you can buy a tablet that moonlights as a computer? If only it hadn't been kind of terrible.
There's no shame in hunting big game, and at some point someone's going to release a tablet that unseats—or at least keeps up with—the iPad. But the Surface wasn't it. A tablet that acts like a PC doesn't hold much water in a world where, as Microsoft exec Panos Panay pointed out earlier today, 96 percent of people who own tablets already own a computer.
Besides, the iPad—with sales still more than double its closest competitor—is so entrenched that even a flawless Surface would have had a impossibly long road to success. And, not to beat that horse too a pulp, it was pretty darn flawed.
The full Windows, original Surface Pro suffered a slightly different fate. It, along with the more refined—but still far from wonderful—Surface 2 featured plenty of spec improvements, but was a dull dart in search of a bullseye. Too expensive to take on tablets, too small and underperforming for true PC consideration.
A true laptop that's thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, though? That you can rip the keyboard off of whenever you want big-screen tablet viewing? Yeah. That could work.
No one can know, in the long run, if PCs will eventually evaporate, or if tablets are just a passing fad (although the smart money's on some sort of convergence). But for Microsoft, that distant future matters less than achieving relevance right now, before it's too late. It was never going to do that by taking on the iPad. But by moving up a weight class, it may have just found a Goliath it can brain.