Microsoft can’t decide if it wants to kill the laptop or revive it

That’s one option.
That’s one option.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Yesterday, at a massive event in midtown Manhattan, Microsoft introduced a new way to make smartphones feel like full-fledged computers, and a new flagship tablet, the Surface Pro 4. It bills the Pro 4 as “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” But near the end of the event, in a sort of “one more thing” moment, the company introduced Surface Book—Microsoft’s first laptop.

The company appears to be hedging its bets on what the future of mobile computing looks like, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. After being derided for years about making a fiddly tablet that looked like a laptop that you couldn’t rest on your lap, it seems the market has come around. Microsoft yesterday said the Surface is now a $3.5 billion business, and some of the other biggest names in technology, namely Apple and Google, have recently released their own tablets with styluses and keyboards.

With the Surface Book, Microsoft is pushing into Apple’s wheelhouse with a premium metal laptop costing $1,500. That’s about $300 more than the price of the base model of the MacBook Pro, but then, you can’t yet draw on a MacBook or snap it apart. It’s the company’s first proper laptop, after spending years focusing on mobile and tablet devices.

But given the direction of computer sales in recent years, it feels odd that Microsoft would choose 2015—and not 2005 or 1995—as the year it decides to launch its first true computer. According to IDC, the PC market fell nearly 12% in the last quarter compared to a year earlier. So why now? Microsoft might be looking to give consumers a computer it believes delivers the full Windows 10 experience, much like Google does with its Nexus devices. Wired argued that the Surface Book will “redefine how PCs are made,” and that other Windows computer manufacturers should be worried. Apple has had great success marketing high-quality (and high-margin) computers in recent years, even as the market shrinks, and Microsoft could be looking to do for Windows what Apple does for its own operating system.

At the same time, Microsoft seems to be leaving the door open for another potential mobile future without laptops or tablets. The company announced its new flagship phones, the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, along with the Microsoft Display Dock. The phones themselves have nice cameras, but are otherwise unspectacular on their own. The dock, which is about half the size of an Apple TV, is ostensibly for charging the phones and connecting them to a monitor for some big-screen video streaming. But together they actually do a bit more: When a new Lumia is plugged into the dock and a screen, it essentially turns it into a computer. You can run full-blown versions of Office programs, check emails, watch HD movies, and control everything with keyboard shortcuts and mouse clicks—pretty much how the average person uses their computer. And if you’re not planning on firing up Photoshop or playing Halo, it could be all you need. CEO Satya Nadella said in his closing remarks yesterday that “in developing markets, these phones can be your first or only computer.”

A Lumia plugged into the dock, acting like a computer.
A Lumia plugged into the dock, acting like a computer.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

As the processors in mobile devices get more powerful, it’s possible that we’ll get to a point where no one will need to lug around laptops. In Microsoft’s future, you can bring your phone anywhere, plug it into any screen and power source (every device will have the same power connector by then), and you’ll have all the computer you’ll need, wherever you are. Microsoft isn’t the first company to try to turn a mobile device into a computer—Motorola and Palm both tried without much success—but sometimes the world just isn’t ready yet. Microsoft did, after all, try to bring the tablet to the world in 2002, before the technology (or design) was really there.

This year marks 20 years since Windows 95 launched. In the 90s, especially before the revival of Apple, Microsoft was everywhere, pumping out ads with “Friends” stars and launch-event frenzies now generally reserved for Apple. In recent years, however, Windows-related shipments of computer devices—mobile or otherwise—have stagnated. As the mobile computer market exploded, Microsoft continued to make software for desktops and laptops, with some less-than-stellar forays into mobile. In the 2000s, the company tried to cram the Windows experience onto smaller screens, and on clunky tablets with inaccurate styluses. At the same time, Apple and Google started crafting experiences to mobile device. Now, with Windows 10, Microsoft wants to provide one unified “Windows” experience, if not the exact same experience, across all its devices. Microsoft Display Dock may well be the way to do that, with its desktop-in-a-smartphone approach. If not, the new laptop and tablet (which looks and operates a lot like the laptop) will also likely provide a great Windows experience. It’s just a matter of which direction the company, and its users want to go.

There’s no way to know yet how the mobile computing market is going to shake out—it remains to be seen if Microsoft is embarking on the mobile equivalent of trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. For now, Microsoft is covering all the bases it can find.