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July 29, 2019
5G could change everything. Here’s what you need to know before you buy into the tech

June 15, 2019
The games were the star of E3, but gaming PCs were center stage

May 15, 2019
Hey, Google, Alexa and Siri: You finally get what we're saying

March 3, 2019
The new phones are coming: The real-world impact of foldable screens and 5G

January 19, 2019
Autonomous cars? Not yet. Digital cockpits, assisted driving the latest auto tech focus

2018 USAToday Columns

2017 USAToday Columns

2016 USAToday Columns

2015 USAToday Columns

2014 USAToday Columns

USAToday Column

October 4, 2019
Microsoft's new Surface highlights major shift in devices

By Bob O'Donnell

NEW YORK – One of the greatest things the tech world brought us is gadgets. From tricked-out smartphones and notebooks to cloud-connected smart home appliances, the industry has built a massive economy around cool tech devices that now sit at the heart of our daily lives.

Until now, the vast majority of groundbreaking products have been based on company-specific advances – think Apple’s iOS and the iPhone it enabled. As we head toward a decade change, however, we’re on the cusp of a new era in which those proprietary capabilities become nearly irrelevant.

Ironically, it was this week's launch of a number of very Microsoft-specific advances to their Surface line of devices that really hit this point home. On the, ahem, surface of it, Microsoft unveiled the latest generation of their notebook, tablet and 2-in-1 products – all to be available this year – and previewed some intriguing new dual-screen foldable devices they will be bringing to market for holiday 2020.

The Surface Laptop 3, now available in both 13-inch and 15-inch screen sizes, the Surface Pro 7 and even the Surface Pro X – which features a Microsoft labeled SQ1 chip built in conjunction with Qualcomm – are extensions to the company’s now well-known and successful line of mobile computers.

Each of the new products featured exactly the kind of improvements you’d expect them to have – faster processors, more storage, new connectors, better battery life, etc. All of the enhancements are important and highlight the company’s desire to continue refining the Surface experience, but frankly, they’re not that exciting.

The Surface Pro X does up the game to a degree by being the company’s first Windows on ARM-based Always Connected PC, or ACPC. What that means is the processor, which is based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips used in other ACPCs, as well as many Android-based smartphones, isn’t based on the x86 instruction set used in Intel and AMD chips, but rather ARM instructions that are commonly used in smartphones and other non-PC devices.

Thankfully, you’ll never have to worry about it because all existing Windows applications will function on the device – but how they run under the hood is a bit different.

Two key benefits of using the ACPC architecture is that it gives longer battery life than traditional notebooks, and it includes a built-in LTE modem, allowing it to be always connected to the Internet (as long as you sign up for a data plan for it with your carrier).

One other clever feature of the Surface Pro X is that it features a special carrying and charging pocket for the included pen in the magnetically attached keyboard you use with the device. As with other Surfaces, you can use the pen for note-taking, annotations, drawing and much more.

What was particularly interesting about the Surface launches overall, however, was the semiconductor chip-related news that came along with them. In sum, Microsoft highlighted several new processors with their traditional partner Intel (including the first-ever usage of a forthcoming Intel Lakefield chip in next year’s Surface Duo foldable device), and the first-ever partnerships with both Qualcomm and AMD for CPUs inside their devices.

The AMD news was particularly sweet for the company because the special semi-custom Ryzen CPU that AMD created for Microsoft is going into its highest-performing new device, the Surface Laptop 3 15-inch version. After having been seen as a lower-cost, lower-performing alternative to Intel for many years, jumping into a higher-end, faster performing device says a great deal about how far AMD has come recently.

In addition to the technical details, what’s interesting about these new CPU choices is that it essentially evens the playing field and turns what used to be considered a critical differentiator into a simple question of choice. Yes, there will certainly be differences among the devices that support the new chips, but having Intel-, AMD- and Qualcomm-based options means that Microsoft essentially believes none is more important than the other.

This sense of equality extended to operating systems as well, most notably on the Surface Neo and Surface Duo foldable devices. The Intel Lakefield-based Neo will run a new variant of Windows called Windows 10X that’s optimized for dual-screen devices. The similar-looking “mini me” version of the Neo is the smartphone-like Surface Duo, which will be based on Qualcomm Snapdragon chips and run Google’s Android.

Again, there will obviously be differences between Windows 10X and Android, but Microsoft is working to provide as similar an experience as possible across the two devices. The primary way they intend to do that is through Microsoft applications –including mobile versions of Office apps – as well as some UI extensions to Android that Microsoft has already worked with Google to create.

The reason this is all happening now is because of our growing dependence on cloud-based applications and services. This development has been going on for several years.

We have now reached a point, however, where the underlying device operating system used on different devices simply doesn’t matter anymore – everything is delivered from the cloud and can be done so in a consistent way across different platforms, screen sizes and chips running inside. Sure, people are going to continue caring about specific devices and will continue to look for features or functions that provide meaningful differentiation across a diverse set of product choices.

Fundamentally, though, we’re about to embark on an age when some of what used to be the most important factors in selecting one product over another become less so and we’ll have a much wider range (and likely larger collection) of devices we can use to achieve whatever it is we want to do.

Here’s a link to the original column:

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.