Company / division: Surface
Microsoft Exec Debunks OEM Rumors About Killing Off Surface (Oct 10, 2017)
A bizarre story did the rounds last week based on executives from several Windows OEMs saying that Microsoft would likely kill off its Surface line at some point in the near future. It should have been obvious on the face of it that (a) these OEMs compete directly with Surface and likely rather resent the way it’s quickly gained lots of positive attention in the premium segment, and (b) Microsoft has just this year expanded and updated the Surface line, an odd thing to do if it’s thinking of killing it off. And yet the rumors persisted to the point where Panos Panay, who runs hardware at Microsoft, felt the need to specifically address and debunk them. One of the reasons the OEM execs gave for Microsoft’s likely exit from the space was poor margin performance, but of course low margins characterize almost the entire consumer electronics industry and PC vendors are no exception. Microsoft hasn’t commented on Surface margins for a while now, but did say on an earnings call in January this year that its Surface gross margin dollars had grown, and it had said previously that the business was gross margin profitable. Now, none of that it to say that this is a scale business or that it’s an enormous contributor to Microsoft’s business overall – it’s just 5% of revenue and likely a tiny fraction of profits – but it’s clearly strategically important to Microsoft and performing well enough financially to be worth the continued investment.
via Business Insider
In the second somewhat controversial decision by Consumer Reports in the past year, it has withdrawn its recommendations from several of the Microsoft Surface hardware products for reasons of projected reliability. Though it rated those products highly in its reviews and recommended both a couple of Surface Laptop and a couple of Surface Book models, a recent survey among owners of older Surface products suggested a 25% hardware fault rate within two years of purchase and that’s what led to the yanked recommendations. Last year, Consumer Reports somewhat controversially failed to recommend Apple’s new MacBook Pros over battery life issues that turned out to be caused by somewhat unusual testing conditions combined with a rogue script, something that it eventually reversed itself on, but there’s little prospect of a similar reversal here.
Though Consumer Reports has long used reliability of past car models in projecting the same for newer models on the basis that they often share platforms and components, that approach feels flimsy when applied to consumer electronics, and especially different models from the same company, given the frequent changes in components. If past reliability took a hit from a single component and that component isn’t present in the new devices, it would be completely irrelevant, but the lack of transparency here from Consumer Reports makes it impossible to know what’s really going on. Given the small share of the total PC market Surface captures, I also wonder just how much data CR has and how representative it really is. Overall, this feels rather like Consumer Reports trying to get attention for itself much as it did with the MacBook Pro issue, where it failed to provide adequate insight into its testing process until pressed by Apple. It’s clearly bad news for Microsoft, whose Surface hardware has generally been very well reviewed in the last couple of years, though most corporate buyers won’t be checking Consumer Reports for reliability ratings and will instead go by their own experiences, which as far as I can tell have generally been fine. Consumers, on the other hand, might lean more heavily on these ratings.
Update: Also worth noting are the overall reliability numbers for PCs, which are available within CR’s laptop ratings section: there, Microsoft comes last of all, but only by one percentage point, while it says differences of five points or less are not meaningful, and that spread covers six PC vendors including market leaders HP, Lenovo, and Dell. So it’s not that Microsoft’s reliability is massively worse than other PCs, but that there’s now enough evidence (by CR’s reckoning) to indicate it isn’t as good as it appeared to be.
via USA Today
Microsoft has today announced a leasing and upgrade program for its Surface line, offering a 24-month payment plan for the devices, and an option to trade in for a new device after 18 months rather than paying it off over the full 24 months. The program is called Surface Plus and there’s also a version for business customers, though it seems like a missed opportunity not to call it Surface as a Service… We’ve obviously seen the installment and leasing models become the default for smartphones on US carriers over the past few years, and there are already examples of hardware vendors getting into the game directly, notably Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program. So this is both a familiar model and a smart move for Microsoft, which recently began to offer bundled Windows and Office subscriptions to business customers and can now offer a single bundle of Surface hardware and those two software packages for businesses. But it’s also a great way to lower the barriers to entry for what are fairly pricey machines for the most part, as Microsoft has stayed firmly above the fray with its Surface line, in contrast to the much lower overall average selling prices of Windows PCs. The Surface Pro starts at $799 (or $33.29 per month over 24 months), while most of the models are over $1000. Reducing that to $40-60 per month for many models should make it much more affordable and predictable as a cost for both individuals and businesses. We’re going to see lots more of this, with hardware vendors packaging up access to one or more devices on a subscription basis with additional subscriptions to software, content, or other services layered on top.
Images Leak of New Microsoft Surface Pro (May 19, 2017)
For The First Time, Apple Drops Below Microsoft In J.D. Power’s Tablet Survey – Fast Company (Apr 7, 2017)
This is symbolically hugely important, because these are just the kind of stats that Apple likes to roll out on earnings calls and so on to highlights the strength of its products, far more so than market share or other statistics (though it often focused on percentage satisfaction rather than rankings per se). As the article makes clear, though, even though this is the first time Apple has dropped behind Microsoft, it’s not the first time it’s been beaten, as Samsung did so earlier. As is often the case with these rankings, you end up wishing the data were a little more transparent. For example, Microsoft apparently beat the iPad on Internet connectivity despite the fact that iPads offer 4G LTE as well as WiFi, which makes me wonder to what extent the ratings reflect the expectations people have of particular brands. In other words, are people pleasantly surprised that the Surface does certain things well, whereas others would expect the iPad to do those things well and therefore give it lower scores? Adjusting for those expectations would be tough, and I doubt JD Power does so. I also wonder to what extent Surface owners self-select into a much more narrow set of use cases for which the Surface is uniquely well suited, whereas the iPad is more of a general purpose device used by a far wider range of use cases, not all of which by definition it’s designed for. At any rate, it’s worth keeping an eye on this over time. Some of the other commentary in the article here is a little overblown – one thing is for certain: iPads massively outsell Surface computers of all shapes and sizes, so any idea that Surfaces are somehow displacing iPads in large numbers is nonsense.
via Fast Company
Cloud was the big theme on Microsoft’s earnings call once again, with a $14 billion annual run rate and nearly 50% gross margins across its cloud businesses, and a 95% growth rate in the Azure business alone. Surface revenue was down a bit, predictably because the product line wasn’t refreshed as fully as in previous years, but not by much, and it seems commercial sales actually grew (probably a reflection of the long sales cycles in enterprise). The phone business continues to dwindle to nothing (just over $200m in revenue this quarter by my estimate, down 81% year on year), but that’s so small now it barely impacts results. Windows did well overall, with some revenue growth from slightly stronger shipments in the PC market, though the PC market overall was still down overall last quarter. Monetizing its consumer business continues to be one of Microsoft’s biggest challenges – its Office consumer subscribers appear to be plateauing at around 25 million, most of its other consumer apps are offered free, and gaming is performing decently, though overall gaming revenue was down year on year. Overall, the results feed the narrative that Microsoft is undergoing a comeback, though it’s a slow and subtle one from a financial perspective.
You might also be interested in the Microsoft Q4 2016 deck which is part of the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks Service.
Gartner Says 2016 Marked Fifth Consecutive Year of Worldwide PC Shipment Decline – Gartner (Jan 11, 2017)
This is Gartner’s quarterly press release on PC shipments for the end of 2016 (IDC’s equivalent release is here, with slightly different numbers, and definitions). The thrust is that the PC market continues to decline, with a 6.2% drop for the full year, and a more modest 3.7% decline in Q4 alone. But the other thing worth noting is that there’s a stark difference between the performance of the big players and the rest – the top six grew by 1.4% and the top five by 2%, but everyone but the top six collectively declined by 18.8% over the full year. The big players are mostly doing OK, but at the expense of a plethora of smaller players, and this is the shape of things to come, with the big question being the number of “big” players that will be able to sustain this performance – Asus and Acer saw declines in Q4, while Apple did better thanks to the new MacBooks.
Warm Takes on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 – Medium (Dec 27, 2016)
Part of the recent version of the Apple is Doomed narrative has Microsoft in the ascendant, ready to eat its lunch. As with the rest of the narrative, that’s overblown, and this piece does a nice job of highlighting the challenges for Microsoft in winning over Mac users. It’s also a good entry in another couple of narratives – Hardware is Hard, and Microsoft and Hardware, pouring some cold water on the plaudits for Microsoft’s recent hardware efforts.