Is Microsoft's Surface Go doomed to fail?

The new tablet-computer is smaller and more affordable than its predecessors. But can it compete with the iPad?

The Surface Go.
(Image credit: Courtesy Microsoft)

When Microsoft took a $900 million writedown on its Surface RT in 2013, it looked as if the laptop-tablet hybrid was yet another ill-fated experiment from the maker of Windows. Fast forward to today: The Surface brand is bringing in a billion dollars a quarter, is mostly well-reviewed, and has even gotten well-known Apple users to ditch their MacBook Pros.

Now, Microsoft wants to transform the narrative around the Surface. Instead of high-end and expensive, the company wants the Surface to be seen as affordable and accessible. Enter the Surface Go. It's small, light, and costs just $399, which puts it well within firing range of other small laptops like the Chromebook, or even the iPad. But lingering questions about the device point to an ongoing problem for Microsoft as a company: It doesn't yet have the ecosystem for the future of computing.

The Surface line has become a brand of its own. But there's no way around it: Surface products are expensive. Microsoft hopes the Surface Go's reduced price can tap into a whole new pool of customers. And the tablet appears to have some appealing qualities to make that happen. It is a fully functional 10-inch Windows computer that weighs under 2 pounds, even with its keyboard attachment. It has the signature Surface hardware quality, including a hinge that props up the tablet at almost any angle. It is also very thin; Microsoft advertises its ability to simply be popped into a purse. The Surface Go also features Windows Hello, which uses facial recognition to log users in. Notably, this is not supported by iPads. And while the $399 entry price tag is misleading — it doesn't include the keyboard attachment, an absolutely essential $99 add-on — $500 for a light, premium-quality computer is still pretty reasonable.

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Strategically, then, this is Microsoft's answer to the idea that a $329 iPad or $300 Chromebook can be the computer for many people, particularly those who don't have $1,000 or more to drop on a laptop — think students, working families, or those in search of a secondary device. But perhaps the problem with the Surface Go is that while it strategically ticks all those boxes, its actual target audience remains a bit unclear. Chromebooks are still cheaper and more viable in the education category. The iPad, with its millions of apps and more refined interface, is a decidedly better tablet.

Windows 10 on the other hand, despite being praised as a desktop OS, was actually a step back from Windows 8 when it came to tablets. Its interface is still half-baked, far better at being used with a mouse and keyboard than with touch. And the evergreen app situation on Windows is still a problem. Never having had a successful mobile operating system, good Windows apps are few and far between.

Therein lies the challenge for the Surface Go. Despite it having solid hardware and a reasonable price, Microsoft simply doesn't have the app ecosystem in place to truly propel a 10-inch tablet-computer into widespread popularity. The Surface Go may be a sneaky attempt to popularize the form factor so as to compel app makers to create apps for the Microsoft Store. But that may well be putting the cart before the horse — remember Microsoft's disastrous efforts to build a phone ecosystem with its purchase of Nokia?

If there is a silver lining for the Surface Go, it's that Microsoft appears to have some truly competitive hardware on its hands, and sometimes all you need to initially get people on board is a device that makes people ooh and ah. If enough students and frontline workers are seen using the Surface Go in a highly mobile way — switching between tablet and laptop modes frequently, and utilizing the pen and touch features — the device could build its own sort of following simply by being seen as cool, which is a quality that has so far eluded Microsoft.

This is a tall order for a tiny computer, but it is also the state of things in tech today. As Apple pushes the iPad Pro and Google the Pixel and Chromebook, the Surface Go is Microsoft's answer. It is the company's clearest expression of its vision for the future of computing: mobile, adaptable, and with multiple inputs. Whether Microsoft can do anything to bolster its ecosystem remains to be seen. If it can't, it won't be just another embarrassing failure for Microsoft, it could cost the company its very place in the mainstream consumer tech market.

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