Microsoft’s biggest product announcement at its Windows 10 event this morning was the Surface Studio, an all-in-one iMac-lookalike that breaks from tradition by folding down into a tilted canvas. It’s a gorgeous device, but its hallmark feature could also come off like a gimmick at first glance. On deeper inspection, it’s clear that Microsoft has a grander ambitions for its convertible desktop. The company wants to reorient how consumers think about the PC, from a stodgy platform for office work and games into an art station capable of striking at the heart of Apple’s creative demographic.
Until today, Microsoft’s most effective pitch was to two distinct crowds of customers. There's the workplace professional who used Microsoft-made software and relied on the Windows ecosystem to do a majority of their job’s daily tasks. Then there's the hardcore gaming enthusiast who needed expensive, powerful components and the optimizations and developer base Windows enjoys to play top-tier titles.
Microsoft wants to strike at the heart of Apple's creative demographic
Surface Studio is taking that pitch and expanding it to a third base: the creative professional. This demographic is the designer, the animator, the illustrator — anyone who right now has an iMac sitting on their desk next to a Wacom drawing tablet. These are lucrative customers who spend heavily on software and are eager to upgrade expensive hardware if the benefit is clear. They also bring Windows, and by extension Microsoft software, into new industries.
Microsoft doesn’t have to tell regular office workers that they won’t be needing the Surface Studio for document editing and web browsing. That is obvious. The company does, however, have to communicate to consumers that a $3,000 PC that can’t play hardcore video games is worth the money. The base model of the Surface Studio only comes with 8GB of memory, and and neither its graphics card nor CPU are the latest available, making it an unlikely candidate to push games at the highest frame rates (especially at the Studio’s 4500 x 3000 resolution). That is perfectly fine, as Microsoft is not claiming the Surface Studio is a gaming machine.
Yet it's clear this very expensive PC cannot do it all. Now, it's Microsoft's job to convince creatives that the drawbacks involved are equal to that of buying an Apple iMac — and that this time around, the Windows machine should win out.
This is not a new push from Microsoft. The company has for years plugged its Surface tablet line as a device capable of pleasing everyone. You could use the PC version of the Surface with a keyboard attached to run Office apps and do real work, or you could use a pen to doodle and the touchscreen to play games. This vision has always been half-baked, mostly because Microsoft has only in the last few years begun recovering from the hybrid software mistakes it made with Windows 8. Even today, there’s only a small portion of the computing population that would and could make ample use a tablet-PC hybrid day in and day out.
Now, Microsoft is now using its Surface concept as a springboard. Where last year’s Surface Book was about making a laptop that could capture the crowd of hip, well-off laptop owners that gravitate to Apple’s MacBook Pro, the Studio is something more focused. Instead of a pen that would mostly get used for drawing circles around things, here it’s integral to the core purpose of the device. The Surface Studio is designed for people who need something besides a keyboard and a mouse for their digital creations. Everything about it is designed expressly for that purpose.
Microsoft is using the Surface concept as a springboard
It’s not a small bet at all. Microsoft is asking creative professionals to ditch their current setup for an all-in-one device that costs a minimum of $3,000. It’s a tough sell, especially one predicated entirely on the monitor's ability to shift from a stand-up desktop to a tilted capacitive drawing display. There’s also an admittedly nifty and useful-looking dial device that acts like a Photoshop button come to life, yet the whole package could very well flop.
The fact of the matter is that Microsoft may never be able to change the perception of Windows for some consumers. The OS will also be that begrudged workplace requirement or the startup screen before a gamer fires up Steam. But because it runs the OS for more than 90 percent of the world’s PCs, Microsoft doesn’t have to change the perception of Windows for everybody.
If it wants to expand into new markets, the company can use a mix of sleek hardware and careful messaging to achieve a different goal with a similar endpoint — to force consumers to think about Windows differently. To imagine it as the best tool for creatives instead of Apple’s products. Even if few lay out the cash for the Surface Studio, the fact that it could make the 5K iMac look like a compromise could be success enough.