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Summary:

To give the Surface Pro 3 the best chance for success, Microsoft should make the Type Cover free and include it with every unit sold.

Surface Pro 3 keyboard

Would you buy a car without a steering wheel? Well, that’s what Microsoft wants you to do with its new Surface Pro 3 tablet, which it claims can serve as a “laptop replacement.”

The Surface Pro 3 is an impressive gadget. It’s light and beautiful, and its screen is perhaps the best I’ve seen on a tablet. My colleague Kevin Tofel has more thoughts here, but suffice to say the product itself is good and the culmination of three successively better iterations.

Microsoft is actively positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement, rather than a tablet. It’s got a big 12-inch screen, it’s packed with laptop guts, and according to Surface VP Panos Panay, Microsoft focused on “lapability” as a core part of the experience. But here’s the problem: In addition to the $800 starting cost for the tablet, you’ll have to pay an extra $130 for a Type Cover, an add-on to Surface that snaps on through magnets, covers the screen, and includes a keyboard and trackpad. In other words, the interface you think of when you hear “laptop replacement” is sold separately.

While selling an accessory separately might not seem like a huge problem, it fits into a problematic pattern with Microsoft hardware: The company hasn’t decided exactly what should be included in the box and what should be a separate purchase. (The confusion even extends to Microsoft stores, which have regularly given the Type Cover away for free with a Surface purchase.) To give the Surface Pro 3 — or the next Surface — the best chance for success, Microsoft should include a Type Cover with every $800 Surface sold.

Microsoft’s deceptive marketing

The Type Cover is more than an accessory: it’s one of Microsoft’s key marketing points for the Surface. The Type Cover appears in nearly every Surface ad, usually as a focal point, as seen in the television spot above.

Microsoft’s announcement blog post calls the Surface 3 “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” The Surface Pro 3’s product page features a comparison chart between the Surface Pro 3 and the Macbook that lists its “detachable keyboard” as a benefit (over the Macbook’s “non-detachable keyboard,” which is, according to Microsoft, “available”).

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If you buy a Surface Pro 3 and don’t pair a keyboard with it, it’s not a laptop. Sure, it can run legacy Windows apps, but without the $130 touch cover, you’ll be pecking on a glass screen. That’s not the email-and-Excel sort of productivity that Microsoft consistently promises. The distinction between mobile computing and desktop computing, in the consumer’s mind, is not in the type of apps the Surface Pro 3 can or can’t run, but rather the kind of computing interface it offers. Without the keyboard and trackpad provided by Type Cover, it’s a tablet.

Microsoft can afford it

Microsoft didn’t include Type Covers in the first or second Surface Pro, either. Those devices were absolute flops in the marketplace. Microsoft actually took a $900 million writedown on the first Surface RT, and though it hasn’t broken out sales numbers for the Surface Pro, I’d guess that it isn’t selling well either.

Microsoft might worry that including the Type Cover with the Surface Pro 3 will increase the overall price enough to prevent the most price-sensitive consumers from considering the device in the first place. But the price wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — increase by a full $130.

Sure, at an estimated $17 materials cost for the Type Cover sold at $130, Microsoft gets a sweet $113 margin before other expenses. But you know what would be even sweeter for Microsoft? Actually selling out of Surfaces. When you’re losing $900 million on a piece of hardware, profits made on accessories are essentially a rounding error. The goal for Microsoft shouldn’t be Apple-style margins, but rather getting the product into the hands of enthusiasts and establishing market share.

A design flaw

When Microsoft first introduced the Surface RT and the Surface Pro in 2012, some believed the company was moving away from licensing operating systems and toward a more integrated, Apple-like model where it produced both software and hardware, leading to fat margins. Some also thought Microsoft was doubling down on industrial design, pointing to the Surface’s chamfered edges, creative heat management, and, yes, that impressive cover.

Yet the Surface isn’t that unique — there are lots of tablets packing laptop guts running full Windows 8. Sure, Microsoft’s tablet has more impressive components — starting with a Intel Core processor — but it’s a difference of degree, not kind.

The Type Cover has significantly improved over its three iterations. The trackpad, in particular, benefitted from major refinements. The kickstand is also upgraded, with a new hinge that lets the user pick an angle from zero to 150 degrees. Without a keyboard, though, the kickstand loses a lot of use cases and there’s nowhere to put the improved pen that Microsoft spent a lot of time perfecting.

Design isn’t just about tolerances or chamfers: it’s about considering the intent of every decision made, and that starts at the store. When customers face a second choice and extra cost just to get the feature they saw on the advertisement, that’s not a great introduction to the product.

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Lessons from Xbox

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has made this type of hardware blunder. The Xbox One, which isn’t selling well, was initially advertised as less of a game machine and more of a living room media center. That’s a savvy idea — that market is still up for grabs, and who better to fill it than Microsoft? But non-gaming consumers would rather use a remote control than an Xbox Controller — it’s a small difference that has a big impact on user experience. The Xbox One remote costs $25 at retail. The marginal cost to produce another is most likely less than $5. Why couldn’t have Microsoft simply bundled it?

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It’s smart that Microsoft is positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a competitor to the Macbook Air instead of the iPad, especially as it seems to be edging away from Windows RT. It can score lots of little victories comparing itself against the Macbook that it might not be able to against the iPad, like cost and weight. But the way it is currently presented to the market shows lapses between Microsoft’s engineering, marketing, and sales departments.

While showing off the Surface Pro 3’s improved Type Cover, Panay remarked, “Sometimes the most subtle innovation can have the largest impact.” I agree. The vast majority of consumers will consider the improved Type Cover trackpad a bigger deal than the Surface’s spec bumps. But in order to have a large impact, first you’ve got to get it into the hands of your customers, and if it’s a feature Microsoft is hanging its hat on, that should be everyone who buys a Surface.

  1. Corrupted Mind Thursday, May 22, 2014

    Disagree. It may be (in Microsoft’s mind) a laptop replacement but in stores it will sit next to the Apple ipad air and the Google Nexus 10 / Samsung Galaxy (pro). Probably sans keyboard, probably with live tiles flickering on the screen. It will be sitting there $100 over a 64GB ipad and possible more over a Samsung or Nexus. To add another $150 would be fatal.

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    1. Thanks for replying, this is a good point. However, at $800 on Best Buy shelves, “sitting there $100 over a 64GB ipad,” isn’t it already a tough sell?

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      1. Jeff Kibuule Thursday, May 22, 2014

        Double that storage for $40 with a microSD card. Apple? Pay another $100 please!

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    2. Every Surface display in stors has them attached to either a TouchCover or TypeCover. This article is DEAD on and is part of the problem for lackluster sales. I personally own a Surface RT which was $620+ after the TouchCover, at a price of $799, no way I’m paying another $130 for a Type Cover.

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  2. Indeed this Microsoft show was embarrassing: A notebook is such a thing, when it has a decent display and a decent keyboard. The surface may be a superior tablet but it is by far not as good as a notebook. I know, matte displays are on their way out these days with touchscreens, but but for me a decent notebook for usage on the road and not inhouse does not have a shiny surface as the surface but a matte display. Therefore the Macbook air for me ist *not* the ultimate mobile notebook. But I guess that even the improved Microsoft attachable keybord cover is nothing to compare to real notebooks. I still love the touch and feel of our older Thinkpad!
    The other lie in this presentation was the weight “advantage”. Yes, if you only take the tablet, you only have 800g. but that is*not* a notebook. When you figure that in, the Surface is in the same league as Sony SVP 132 with its 860g or the Macbook with its 1080g.

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  3. Pasi Pikkupeura Thursday, May 22, 2014

    “Would you buy a car without a steering wheel? A bicycle without pedals?”

    FIY all decent bikes come without pedals. You want pedals? You pay extra and have the freedom of choose wich pedal system to go.

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    1. Okay, would you buy a bicycle without… uhh… cranks? A headset? Maybe those would’ve been a better choice, because you’re right, pedals are exactly the kind of personal choice accessory that *should* be sold separately.

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  4. So for those that want a high powered tablet that can be used to do their desktop and corporate tasks, but that don’t necessarily need a keyboard, why force them to buy one? There are going to be a number of people that are perfectly fine with tapping the glass keyboard. Younger users are becoming more used to such interfaces.

    s Pasi stated – high-end products allow you to customize. By not having the included keyboard, you get the option to use the thinner touch, the thicker type, or the more robust power keyboards. Why fore someone to the type keyboard when they might prefer to have the added battery provided by the powered keyboard.

    Your analogy of steering wheel is bad. This is more like buying an pickup without a towing frame. Many people won’t want to tow things, so they won’t need it. Or they will only do light things, so they can get buy without the added cost of the towing frame.

    This article seems like a lot of noise for the sake of making noise. The sky is falling after all!

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    1. You’re right — your analogy is better. Wish I could’ve used it! It is exactly like selling a truck by focusing on its hauling ability then not including a towing frame.

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    2. And I also agree with you that younger users are used to using a touch interface. But I don’t see how anyone could ever do serious Excel without the power of a keyboard and hotkeys.

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    3. And I also agree with you that younger users are used to using a touch interface. But I don’t see how anyone could ever do serious Excel (desktop-style productivity) without the power of a keyboard and hotkeys.

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      1. But look at Excel as heavy towing. There are many consumers (and certainly businesses) that will not be buying these devices for Excel use. They’ll be used for point of sale apps, inventory apps, electronic medical records, etc. For those applications, the stylus and touchscreen are more than adequate.

        Not including the keyboard reduces the entry cost. If you want/need it, pony up the money. If you don’t, you didn’t have to spend ~$100 extra for something you didn’t need.

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  5. Srikanth Remani Thursday, May 22, 2014

    1. a resouceful person would be able to use a surface pro 3 without the type keyboard by utilizing the usb port or bluetooth, but I agree with the argument that Keyboard should be included or a cheaper bundle should be available than full retail $130 for KB.

    2. Surface Pro lineup has been a Hybrid Ultrabook – its a category of its own to say, but its unfairly compared with iPad Air when it comes to weight and MBA/MBP when it came to core performance.

    3. Surface Pro 3 is a not a massive change but decent leap in terms of SP1 to SP2 incremental changes and SP3 is in sale about 7 months of SP2 release

    4, To pack an i7 in that form factor is just amazing and I would go ahead buy that one with the docking station and yes, it is 4K capable so I would use a 4K TV as a monitor – this developer-topia, when the dev-box can be used in Desktop, notebook and tablet configurations.

    5. Pen – the nTrig pen with OneNote does have amazing potential esp. for students.

    SP3 has its flaws and people whose use cases it hits, it does cover a decent ground.

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    1. Good point, especially about the nTrig pen. I didn’t get to touch on that but it is a really impressive feature. My worry about giving Surface Pros to a class of students for pen-related notes and drawings is that I promise you about half of high school students would lose that pen immediately.

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  6. For your blog posts to be successful, you really need to give each of us $5.

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    1. That’s out of my budget but I’ll give you 5 dogecoin.

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  7. If I want SP3 to be a Laptop I’ll buy it as a Laptop replacement. If I want SP3 to be a Tablet, I will buy it as is. If I want it to become a more dedicated device I will use Bluetooth. or Hook tons of devices up via small hub

    Tons of choice to me is never a flaw

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  8. Odd. Are they trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? The pricing, the bundling (lack of), and the ad don’t cohere. The real issue is Office, their crown jewel. The device is a great way to sustain and extend the Office franchise; and it’s the only reason anyone would buy a surface, vs tablets. And that requires a keyboard.

    Defend the castle, bundled the keyboard.

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  9. The essential point of the author’s article is correct: the Surface needs a keyboard. Period. And it would sell better if the keyboard was included (this is written on a rooted Surface RT).

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  10. If Apple marketed the iPad with the SmartCover in every commercial, advertisement, revealing, and whatever else….I’m sure people would expect the SmartCover to be in the iPad packaging when they opened it. Microsoft can either stop marketing it as such or include it. Cause what they’re doing now isn’t going over so well with consumers.

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    1. You have a choice – to tablet or lap it. if you choose the latter, then, you are taxed for your personal choice. I rather have the option and use it with my current USB keyboard.

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