The Surface 3 is dead, as experts debate the future of low-end tablets
Experts look at whether the world wants or needs a Surface 4. Agam Shah reports
Microsoft will stop manufacturing the Surface 3 by the end of the year, which raises the question: will there be a Surface 4? The company has so far declined to say whether it will produce such a tablet, but said it had seen strong demand for the Surface 3.
On the surface then, it would seem that releasing a successor would be a no-brainer. However, the tablet market is a challenging one. Upgrades have slowed down to every five- or six years, and tablet shipments, with the exception of 2-in-1s, are declining. PC makers are already releasing innovative products that could be viable options to a Surface 3 successor.
Prices for the consumer-focused Surface 3 start at £369. For the professional user Microsoft has the Surface Pro 4, with the entry-level model costing £749.
According to Bob O’Donnell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, there are arguments both for and against Microsoft releasing a Surface 4.
For example, Microsoft has spent a lot of money marketing and branding Surface products. The result is that the name is widely recognised by the public. There’s also a growing trend among consumers, who instead of buying a new budget PC opt for a 2-in-1 device instead. A Surface 4 could serve that role, O’Donnell argued.
At the same time, PC makers are already offering similar products, so Microsoft may not need to make a Surface 4, O’Donnell said.
Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, suggested that it would be a good idea if Microsoft scrapped its budget Surface and instead focused on higher-end products to motivate PC makers again. According to Kay, the Surface started off as a proof-of-concept product to stimulate innovation among PC makers. The Surface Pro serves that purpose, but not the consumer-focused tablet. Microsoft should instead focus on innovation in its professional tablet now that iPad Pro is emerging as a competitor.
He also makes the point that Surface products upset PC makers, who feel Microsoft shouldn’t compete with its own customers. “I have talked to a lot of OEMs, and they roll their eyes when they hear Surface,” Kay explained. However, if Microsoft thought that the Surface 4 would make it heaps of money, he said that would be a different story.
New chips could mean new models
There are also questions on what hardware a Surface 4 would use. The Surface 3 is based on Intel’s Atom chip, codenamed Cherry Trail, which will be succeeded by Pentium and Celeron chips codenamed Apollo Lake. These have been primarily designed for 2-in-1 PCs, but will also appear in tablets.
The idea of buying a Surface tablet with a Pentium or Celeron chip, which has been used in low-cost laptops for a long time – may not appeal to some buyers.
If Microsoft does make a Surface 4, then the device could instead carry a Core M chip, which is already used in a model of the Surface Pro 4.
In the long run, Microsoft has to work out what to do with the entire Surface line-up. The Xbox is the money maker, the HoloLens is the game changer, but there are questions on the motivation behind Surface devices. “What’s their purpose? Are they making money? Are they making prototypes?” asked Kay.