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Microsoft shows that backwards compatibility is forward thinking

Microsoft shows that backwards compatibility is forward thinking

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We've already talked about the triumph that was Microsoft's launch event yesterday, but I want to touch on one of the subtler aspects of it that might have gone unnoticed: the relationship between the new Surface Pro 4 and the incumbent Surface Pro 3. Yes, there actually is one, and it extends far beyond insubstantial talk of design continuity. The new Surface Pro has a larger display than the old one, but that's achieved with thinner bezels, leaving the tablet itself compatible with all the old accessories. Being the same physical size also makes all of the SP4's upgraded new accessories compatible with the SP3.

This might sound entirely logical and not all that much of a big deal, but it's been remarkably rare to see in real-world consumer electronics. Take Asus as the example not to follow. The Taiwanese company has been one of the most aggressive proponents of hybrid devices, whether they be smartphones that slot into tablet docks or tablets with attachable keyboards that morph into laptops. But every time Asus has introduced a new PadFone or Transformer Book or Pad, all the parts have changed. Cross-compatibility between generations? Zero. Time between generations? Mere months.

When a company treats its products as disposable commodities, consumers end up feeling disposable themselves. We don't buy devices in a vacuum, and the way the hot new thing fits in with all the things we've already accumulated matters. Pebble is another serial offender, having changed its proprietary charging connector with each new iteration of its smartwatch. Actions of this kind don't inspire confidence in the consumer, betraying a short-term approach from device makers that most people find distasteful. Motorola has similarly gotten itself into hot water recently by omitting the latest Moto E, launched this year, from its list of devices to receive the Android Marshmallow update.

You can charge your SP4 with your old SP3 charger, and vice versa

Microsoft is doing right by owners of the Surface Pro 3 by letting them in on the fun of the much-improved keyboard accessories for the Surface Pro 4 — some of which include a fingerprint sensor for biometric authentication — as well as the all-new Surface Pen. The SP3 charger can charge the SP4 and vice versa. If you already own a Surface Pro 3, you have the beginnings of a hardware ecosystem for the Surface Pro 4. That's especially important to business and enterprise customers, who are high on Microsoft's list of priorities. Owning the older Microsoft product is giving you a direct reason to be more attracted to its newer stuff.

Apple's vibrant hardware ecosystem is built on exactly this sort of positive reinforcement that comes about from keeping accessories compatible across devices and over time. It's not a permanent reassurance — as evidenced by introductions like the Lightning connector and 3D Touch — but Apple generally assures buyers of its goods that they'll be able to buy extras and enjoy robust support for months and years to come. That's a matter of both hardware and software, a point underlined by Apple's track record of stretching to cover iPhones from years ago with its latest iOS updates (while Android device makers like Motorola seem incapable of guaranteeing that even their latest devices will be up to date).

We call it backwards compatibility today, but really it's a matter of thinking ahead when introducing the older devices. Microsoft is doing even more good things on the console front, where it will soon allow Xbox One owners the ability to play their Xbox 360 games on the new console. When a company keeps doing such user-friendly things, when it makes these gestures that don't seem immediately profitable, it's assuring itself a high degree of customer satisfaction, which tends to be the precursor to more sales.

Microsoft wants to refashion itself as the purveyor of great experiences. Those experiences start with great devices, but they inevitably extend beyond the horizon of a given tablet or smartphone's tenure as the flagship product. Microsoft's recognition of this fact, and its efforts to keep old and new users happy at the same time, gives me confidence to believe it can fulfil its stated ambitions.

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