When Microsoft announced the first Surface devices, they changed the PC industry in several ways. First, this was Microsoft's entrance into a new paradigm: competing head-to-head with their own partners. Some saw this as a mistake for Microsoft, feeling it could drive manufacturers to adopt Chrome OS. Microsoft saw it as an opportunity to push the industry in new and interesting directions. As it turns out, that was the second change: a whole collection of new hardware types and styles emerged.
The Surface was part tablet, part laptop, part Ultrabook and all powerful. Microsoft's aspirations for the new device family was not what most journalists believed. Microsoft wasn't trying to hurt their OEMs, but instead wanted to create a technical specification for other manufacturers to get behind. Because of the Surface, HP, Lenovo and even Apple are chasing the successes Microsoft has had in the space. Since then, Microsoft has done this with other product categories, most specifically the Microsoft Band.
This week, at Microsoft's #Windows10Devices event, the company unveiled a new entry in the Surface family, the Surface Book. With this product, Microsoft is making more changes to the industry. First is, again, their relationship with OEMs. While the Surface pushed manufacturers to try new things with hardware, with the Surface Book, Microsoft is telling OEMs, "If you're not interested in innovating in traditional PCs, we will."
The result was astounding. In a room filled with tech journalists that have proven several times that, no matter how exciting an announcement is, they will remain silent in the room, people were cheering and saying "I want one of those!" When was the last time a laptop actually got people excited, save for the rare gaming laptop? To my recollection, it has been many, many years, and yet Microsoft managed to do it with their first device.
The good news for existing hardware companies like HP and Lenovo is, there is only one Surface Book. That means retailers will only need a single display position to carry the device. This leaves plenty of space for everyone else to design and launch products that can compete with the likes of the Surface Book, while separating themselves from the rest. This is a shot across the bow of many companies, some of which will respond, some will cease to exist - it is up to them which way they go.
The likely result is a culling of the herd. There will be some second tier laptop companies that will not survive because they are incapable of adapting. The rest will adapt and begin to produce exciting hardware, trying to fill the gaps left by the Surface Book. For example, not everyone will be happy with a laptop whose lid does not close 100%, no matter how cool the device is. That would be a perfect place for HP or Lenovo to swoop in and save the day. On the other hand, not everyone wants a premium piece of hardware, giving Acer a perfect place to swoop in and offer a budget-friendly competitor.
On the other hand, we have seen something like this before with very different results. When Google purchased Motorola's mobile division, Samsung's response was not to compete, but instead to develop Tizen. Most of us didn't think Tizen was going to be anything of any success, but Google decided not to risk the exposure and, instead, sold the division off to Lenovo. The problem is that productivity is a different marketplace from mobile. It is unlikely HP would try for their own operating system, especially considering they already sold a viable one to LG.
The thing that makes a laptop useful is productivity, which in the real world means access to Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and development tools. The likelihood of a company, even as big as HP, getting the support of productivity companies behind a new, limited-reach operating system is slim at best. There is little hope for any of the OEMs to magically succeed with Chrome OS, partially for the same reason and partially because they have yet to have any notable success to date. Linux is also not really a viable option for a myriad of reasons too numerous to discuss here.
The End Game
Personally, as someone who replaced a laptop with a Surface Pro since near launch without ever considering replacing it, even I am excited about this new device. In fact, it is likely you could see one appear in the studio shortly after its launch. I am excited about the insane hinge, the discrete graphics card and the blazing fast data transfer speeds. Why it took so long for someone to realize that laptops can still be sexy is unimaginable, but I think we can all be glad that it has finally happened.