How Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 Avoids Ripping Off Existing Fans

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Microsoft just showed off its new Surface Pro 4 at a much-reviewed press event in New York City. The Surface Pro 4 looks like a great device, and the accessories that the company designed for it are likely to inspire envy among owners of the incumbent Surface Pro 3. But lucky for you if you own the Surface Pro 3, you’ll be able to upgrade to the new accessories without buying a new tablet. And that fact reveals that Microsoft is thinking as much about its current fans as the new customers it hopes an array of brand-new devices will attract.

Vlad Savov reports for The Verge that the relationship between the Surface Pro 3 and the newly-unveiled Surface Pro 4 “extends far beyond insubstantial talk of design continuity.” The new Surface Pro 4 has a larger display than the old one, but that upgrade is accompanied by thinner bezels, which make the tablet the same overall size as its predecessor. In a move that’s unusual among hardware-making tech companies, it also makes the Surface Pro 4 compatible with all of the accessories that were introduced for the Surface Pro 3. And it ensures that all of the upgraded accessories announced for the Surface Pro 4 are compatible with the Surface Pro 3.

Savov reports that while that might sound logical, and not that much of a big deal, such backward-compatibility is actually quite rare in the world of consumer electronics. Consider Asus as an example. While the Taiwanese tech company is a proponent of all-things-hybrid, from smartphones that slot into tablet docks to tablets that convert into laptops with removable keyboards, Savov notes that each time Asus has introduced a new PadFone, Transformer Book, or Pad, “all the parts have changed. Cross-compatibility between generations? Zero. Time between generations? Mere months.”

Pebble, a successful smartwatch-maker that’s carved out its niche in the market with an approach that’s distinct from the strategy Apple’s adopted with the market-leading Apple Watch, is another “serial offender” on the front of eschewing backward compatibility. Pebble has changed its proprietary charging connector with each new iteration of its smartwatch, which Savov explains communicates that the company is treating its products as disposable commodities and doesn’t inspire confidence on the part of consumers.

Other companies that employ a similar short-term approach to devices include many smartphone manufacturers, including Motorola, which suffered backlash when it omitted the latest Moto E, which was launched only earlier this year, from the list of its smartphones that are slated to receive the update to Google’s new Android Marshmallow operating system.

Microsoft, on the other hand, clearly thought about current Surface Pro 3 owners when it was planning the Surface Pro 4. People who currently own, and like, the Surface Pro 3 will be able to upgrade to the new keyboard accessories for the Surface Pro 4. And those accessories offer substantial improvements, including a fingerprint sensor for biometric authentication. Surface Pro 3 owners can also use the new Surface Pen. And the Surface Pro 3’s charger can charge the Surface Pro 4, while the Surface Pro 4 charger can charge the Surface Pro 3.

Savov notes that if you already have the Surface Pro 3, the hardware ecosystem you’ve already established will be compatible if you choose to upgrade to the Surface Pro 4, which is important not only to the average consumer, but also to the enterprise customers that Microsoft is looking to please. It’s a smart move, since owning Microsoft’s older hardware gives you a strong reason to keep choosing Microsoft when you’re looking to upgrade.

Apple’s hardware ecosystem benefits from the company’s choice to keep accessories compatible across devices and over time. There have been some changes and exceptions, like the introduction of the Lightning connector or the changes ushered in by 3D Touch, but generally, consumers can buy Apple products and related accessories and enjoy support on both the hardware and software side for years to come. Apple’s optimization of its latest version of iOS for iPhones that are years old, for instance, contrasts sharply with Android phone manufacturers’ inability to guarantee that even their latest smartphones will get major software updates.

Savov equates backward compatibility with forward thinking, and writes that when companies prioritize user-friendly moves over those that are immediately profitable, that generally leads to high customer satisfaction and, as a result, more sales. Microsoft’s efforts to make existing users happy, in addition to creating devices that will attract new users to its ecosystem, seems like a winning strategy.

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