Microsoft's new mobile strategy distilled to one word:


Putting the words "Microsoft", "mobile", and "strategy" in one sentence produces mixed reactions, ranging from excitement to sheer dread. Yet, it is possible to distill Microsoft's new mobile strategy down to just one word.

When we consider the history of Microsoft's moves over the last few years, with the Surface RT, Surface (1), Surface Courier, Surface Pro, Pro 2, Pro 3, Pro 4, Surface Book, Surface Laptop, Lumia Tablet, Lumia mobile phones, and even more recently, Surface UltraMobile and Surface Studio, one thing is clear: less is more.

As the Lumia brand dies, and Windows-Mobile / Windows-Phone based handsets disappear, we skew to the "less" side of "less is more".

Inversely, the Surface brand is on the rise, both in popularity, and in device count. Microsoft is cashing in on that popularity by offering additional accessories cleverly marketed with the Surface brand, such as docks, keyboards, mice, and pens. Often priced well above their competition, these premium computing devices and accessories are faring well in a crowded marketplace. $200 for a keyboard? No worries.

In a space where less is more, we are led to believe that the Surface Pro is all you need to replace your laptop (or desktop computer). Yet we are adding accessories to it all the time: keyboards, docks, cables, USB drives, SD cards, external monitors, mice, backup hard drives... requiring more and more ports.

Frequently, the accessories we need to use, require a port, and the port isn't there, so we need a dock. If you're working at the office or at home, we prefer a larger screen and a full size keyboard and mouse. When we travel, we don't want to take a heavy bag full of gear with us, and when we return, we don't want to be confused about which cable plugs in where. It should just work.

Microsoft's new mobile strategy can be distilled in one word: portability.

Portability.

It seems a little too simple at first. However, as you explore each product, the ecosystem, the use cases, and the needs of the customer, it becomes clear. Minimalism + Maximalism + Design = Portability.

Exploring Minimalism:

Here in the Surface of computing devices (leaving aside the accessories for a moment), we find great execution of minimalism. One front, one back, one screen, one power port, one expansion port, one legacy port, one display port, one keyboard port.

Let's take the Surface Pro 4 as an example of the range.

  • To use is on the go, do you need any accessories? No.

  • It has a touch screen, a battery, microphone, camera, speakers, and wifi.

  • Need to tap out an email? Use the on-screen keyboard.

  • Need to include a photo? Use wifi to access OneDrive, or use the camera to take a photo.

  • Need to adjust something with a mouse? Just touch the screen with your finger.

  • Want to watch a movie? Open an app.

  • Want to listen to music? Open an app.

Exploring Maximalism:

Working on a mobile device for long periods of time can be cumbersome. We would much prefer a larger screen and a full size keyboard for getting work done. Putting a large screen and large keyboard into a mobile device creates bulk and makes it less portable. The answer: external accessories.

We want a larger screen, a full size keyboard, a mouse, and better quality speakers. We want to be able to plug in an external backup hard drive, or a USB drive, or a phone, a printer, and more.

How can we plug in all these devices with the limited number of ports on a small device? Add a hub or a dock.

We don't want to constantly swap cables, or figure out where to plug in three or six cables each time we return home with a laptop. Can't we just plug in once and have everything work? A dock solves this problem.

Let's look at the Surface Pro 4 again as an example.

  • I want to plug in a monitor. The Pro 4 has a DisplayPort connector.

  • I want to add a Bluetooth mouse. The Pro 4 has Bluetooth.

  • I want to add a full size keyboard. The Pro 4 has a USB-A port and Bluetooth.

  • I go ahead and plug in my USB keyboard.

  • Now I want to access info on my USB drive. No more ports are available.

This is where a dock becomes useful. A dock carries all the extra ports I'm likely to need, and keeps everything plugged in to one box, and connects to the Surface Pro 4 with just one easy to connect magnetic cable. The dock will also charge my Pro 4 while I'm working.

If I have a dock at the office and a dock at home, I can take my Pro 4 with me, and simply plug in one cable at my destination.

If I want to stream a movie to my TV, I can connect wirelessly with the Microsoft Display Adapter to the HDMI port on my TV.

Maximalism, in brief, is everything you want, available to you, all the time.

Exploring Design:

Transportable devices like phones and laptops need to be portable. They are preferably compact, light weight, bump-resistant, and pretty.

To achieve all of these goals, a design needs to be thin, light, attractive, high quality, and hard-wearing. This is minimalism at its best, at the expense of maximalism.

So how do you achieve a design that executes on both minimalism and maximalism?

  • Include expansion, and make that expansion wireless-based.

  • Include expansion, and make that expansion wire-based, limited to one or two multi-purpose connectors.

Wireless expansion is available via Bluetooth, WiDi, WiFi, and WiGig.

Wired expansion is available via the Surface Connect port, to a dock.

Wired expansion is available via the USB-A port to a USB hub.

Microsoft has been smart in achieving a design that accomplishes both aims, and further enticing people in to the ecosystem by offering Surface-branded accessories that allow for maximalism without compromising on minimalism in the host device.

What about the smart phone?

Microsoft has one remaining partner in the phone space at the moment: HP.

HP introduced the HP Elite X3, a Windows-based phone that has accessories including the laptop-like Folio keyboard and screen, powered by the phone, and a dock that allows you to use the phone as the "brain" of your desktop PC setup.

Samsung may also introduce a Windows-based handheld at some point, however release timing is unclear.

With Microsoft's Lumia brand almost extinguished, and HP's X3 remaining low-profile, why is Microsoft allowing themselves to be shut out of the phone market?

Again, we draw your attention to Microsoft's core strategy: Minimalism + Maximalism + Design = Portability.

People don't want a smartphone, but they buy iPhones and Android phones. Why? Because these phones are really small computers in your hand.

Microsoft realizes this, and is putting its energy and resources into the next leap forward in portable computing: a true full computer in your hand. Portability!

The technology to achieve this at an affordable price is certainly coming: the new iPhones and Android phones show just how much computer power you can pack in to a handheld device. However, you still can't get the same productivity value out of an iPhone that you can achieve on a MacBook Pro or a Windows PC.

This ultimate handheld computer is coming, and it's coming from Microsoft.

Until next time,

Xavier Zymantas

XYZ Media Group

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