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Microsoft's Surface strategy: Flatten the PC

Mark Hachman | Oct. 7, 2013
With the Surface 2, Microsoft isn't just trying to dominate the tablet market. It's hoping to replace the PC market.

For its part, Asus has moved to its third generation of modular computers--but you've likely never seen them. In 2012, Asus launched the PadFone, which could dock into the rear of a PadFone Station tablet. That, in turn, could slot into a battery-powered, 24W dock, complete with a keyboard and an SD Card slot. Unfortunately, the PadFone doesn't support any of the LTE frequency bands that U.S. carriers use.

Other modular ideas, such as tucking an MP3 player inside a laptop, have never gone beyond the design stage.

Differentiation by addition

Both the first- and second-generation Surface tablets can work with detachable keyboards, namely the Touch Cover and Type Cover. But the real differentiation comes from the Surface 2's two new accessories, the Power Cover and the Docking Station.

By itself, the Power Cover doesn't seem all that special. For $200, the Power Cover combines a 30-watt-hour battery and a keyboard, roughly doubling the battery life of the Surface Pro, Surface 2, or Surface Pro 2. It isn't backlit, a feature of the other covers. But while the Surface Pro 2 may last just 5 hours or so on a charge--not quite enough for a cross-country flight--the Power Cover can provide enough juice for a flight to Taiwan, or a weekend of occasional use.

Meanwhile, the $200 Docking Station turns the Surface into a desktop machine. It can power two separate monitors for a total display resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels, and it includes one USB 3.0 port, three USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort connector, ethernet, and audio connections. And if users prefer, they can leave the Surface 2 attached to the Touch Cover or Type Cover while using the Docking Station.

Panay, who spent most of his presentation breathlessly touting the Surface 2's capabilities, was justifiably excited about what the Docking Station adds.

"We know what a docking station does," Panay said. "Everybody uses a docking station. But just take your mind here really quick: We went from a tablet to a laptop, and we can use it in both forms. But we can move it to a desk. Now we have a workstation PC right in front of us."

Panay also showed off the Surface Remix and seemed open to customer feedback, soliciting ideas on a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" thread. Ideas so far have included optimized gaming peripherals, and perhaps a cover doubling as an electronic-ink reader.

Will Microsoft design and sell its own blades? Possibly. But Liteye Systems' Geyer, who has been down this road before, says that creating an ecosystem is the best idea. "Microsoft, being as big and visible as they are, can probably cover the accessories themselves, but I would still think that seeding to third parties would be a fast lane to [adoption] in a large number of market niches," he says.


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