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Microsoft: A Better Apple — Than Apple?

I’m writing this blog using my MacBook Air. And I’m glancing off screen every few minutes to check texts and social updates on my iPhone 6 Plus. Yet I’m strangely distracted by Microsoft’s latest product launches — particularly the Microsoft Surface Book Laptop and Display Dock unveilings today in New York.

Most pundits expected Surface Pro 4 to grab the spotlight at Microsoft’s big media event today in Manhattan. But the super-secret Microsoft Surface Book Laptop essentially stole the show.

On the one hand, Surface Pro 4 attacks the mobile market from the bottom up — it’s a tablet that sort of grows up and grows out to be a full-blown notebook.

On the other hand, Surface Book attacks the mobile market from the bottom down — it’s a full blown notebook that scales down into a tablet.

The result: Surface Book essentially is Microsoft’s first-ever notebook. If the product works as advertised, I think Apple should be worried — as should third-party PC and notebook makers.

Microsoft Surface Book Promotional Video

Take a look at the Surface Book promotional video, and you nearly expect Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive to deliver the voiceover:

Microsoft Surface Book Pricing, Availability

The Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Olivarez-GilesWe covered many of Surface Book’s tech specs, design goals and pricing estimates a few hours ago during Tech News Today, which I co-anchor with Mike Elgan each Tuesday:

Microsoft Surface: Getting Better With Age?

Much like Microsoft’s core operating systems in the 1990s, the “software” giant significantly improves its Surface hardware with each successive product launch. The early embarrassment of Surface RT is long behind Microsoft. Long live Surface Pro 4, Surface Book and their successors.

Still, plenty of questions remain. Chief among them:

  1. Will hardcore Apple gadget users like me ever return to the Windows crowd?
  2. Will anyone actually buy Microsoft’s new Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones?
  3. Where are the channel partner opportunities for the new Surface Book and Surface Pro 4?

Let me start with the easy answers: I suspect Apple gadget users like me will give the new Surface Book a look only when their existing hardware is nearing end of life. And at that point, Surface Book better be a rock-solid investment without crapware, bloatware and the other announces that choked the Windows market in recent years.

As for Microsoft’s smartphones, I don’t see much hope for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL — unless you use Microsoft Display Dock products to transform those phones into fully functional desktop PCs. Think of it this way: If you like the Windows 10 PC experience, you might be inclined to use Microsoft’s smartphones — especially if those smartphones can truly function like a PC.

Microsoft Surface Partner Sales

Despite ever-improving product quality, Surface has a mixed to negative history among channel partners. Microsoft alienated some partners with the original Surface devices — which were mostly direct sales and retail sales oriented. More recently, Microsoft irked some partners by confirming plans to sell Surface devices via HP and Dell.

That sounds terrible. But it’s not. On the one hand, many MSPs have returned to the hardware market — offering product sales as part of ongoing network and customer upgrades. But on the other hand, the bulk of today’s growth and profit opportunities involve the application layer — either via an on-premises server or out in the cloud. Even VARs are discovering that reality.

Channel partners should fight for their unfair share of Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 sales and profits. But don’t lose sight of the greater opportunity: Complete customer account control, where hardware sales are one shrinking piece of the larger IT and business puzzle.

PS: I’ve asked Microsoft for potential comment about channel-led Surface Book sales. As soon as I receive details, I’ll update this article accordingly.

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