Where are the Surface spine accessories?

Microsoft's Surface tablets have been out on the market for a couple of years now and while the response to the device was initially mild, it appears that the market might be starting to warm up to the devices. But one question has left us puzzled: why is the spine port on the Surface being under-utilized?

A little over a year ago, Microsoft's Surface team took to Reddit and during an AMA, they talked about peripherals that would use this port. Based on their response, we can conclude that the peripheral that was hinted at was the Power Cover that was released for the Surface Pro 2. The team stated the following last February:

At launch we talked about the "accessory spine" and hinted at future peripherals that can click in and do more. Those connectors look like can carry more current than the pogo pins, don't they?​

Even though the Pro 3 is now out on the market, we still have yet to see the spine port be utilized in any way other than attaching a Microsoft peripheral. This seems like a missed opportunity for vendors like Logitech - who by all means could probably build a killer keyboard attachment and boost the appeal of the device - to work with Microsoft and make the Pro 3 more desirable.

We reached out to Microsoft to see if they would give us any hints about new spine accessories coming to market but their response was rather vague. They said that the USB port is a great option for adding more devices to the Pro 3 and that there are vendors making peripherals (more on that below) but they are not willing to comment on whether or not any will use the spine port. Microsoft said:

Every Surface we’ve shipped has included a full-size USB port, and the ability to connect and use a vast array of peripherals is valuable to our customers. As we’ve said before, from day one we’ve contemplated extending the Surface experience by enabling third party vendors to connect to the accessories spine and other ports. We continue to explore options through the “Designed for Surface” program that enables partners to create products that are specifically designed for Surface. As far as specifics regarding vendors and products, we have nothing to share at this time.

It is worth pointing out that there are Surface accessories such as the dock and there are keyboard covers. Also, cases for the tablet are on the market and there are quite a few mice that work well with the device. After all, it is a proper Windows machine so any Bluetooth enabled device will work with the tablet.

Further, we are starting to see vendors include the Pro 3 in kiosk type setups too, but these are geared more towards building a solution around the Pro 3, rather than integrating with the device via the spine port.

But it seems like there is a big opportunity here that has not yet been taken. The spine port is unique to the Surface and it allows Touch/Type Covers to be integrated natively into the device. Microsoft has done a good job with the creation of the port - but why isn't it getting third parties on-board with the Surface?

Well, we have heard that there is now an initiative aimed at doing just that, but what we don't know is if Microsoft had been seriously pursuing third parties before this year, to build peripherals using this port. Of course, Microsoft has shown that they are going all-in with the Surface and is prepared to use it as a loss-leader until they can perfect the formula and succeed in mass consumer adoption, so third parties should approach the Surface with confidence knowing that it won't be going away.

We will be curious to see if Microsoft does use of the spine port, and their comment above does not explicitly deny that they remain open to the idea.

Microsoft shows that the spine port has potential, but why hasn't it capitalized on it yet?

What kind of peripherals could be built? Perhaps the one that Microsoft won't build - a hard-shell keyboard. While Microsoft showed that there is potential with its 'blade' peripherals, those have been quietly shoved out the back door. Imagine letting Gibson build a peripheral that connects to the port that acts as a guitar pedal or allowing for easier music creation, for example. There are quite a few ways to use this port that could expand the horizons of the tablet beyond those so far explored.

If you are thinking that the USB port should be able to handle all of these duties, the problem is that there is only one on the device, and carrying around a USB hub is far from an elegant solution. The spine port offers up a unique feature not found on the iPad or Android tablets, and is another way that Microsoft can differentiate the Pro 3 from other tablets on the market.

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Any Surface accessory that uses the spine must compete with my desire to have a keyboard plugged in. That's a pretty tough sell, which means it must be very niche (making it a niche of a niche) or include a better keyboard, but Microsoft will be hard pressed to lose out on the type cover money that they are otherwise almost guaranteed.

Someone puts a proprietary port on their device? They are ######, the port sucks, why didn't they use USB, etc.
MICROSOFT puts a proprietary port on their device? Third party makers are ######, the port is the best thing since sliced bread, people should use this instead of USB, etc.

Completely double standards.

riahc3 said,
Someone puts a proprietary port on their device? They are ######, the port sucks, why didn't they use USB, etc.
MICROSOFT puts a proprietary port on their device? Third party makers are ######, the port is the best thing since sliced bread, people should use this instead of USB, etc.

Completely double standards.

They have USB, and they don't use it so that it stays open when you plugin a keyboard. USB, while ubiquitous, does not satisfy the other uses of the spine, which includes the magnetic clicking so that the accessory stays attached without effort.

When Surface 2 came out, all that talking about 'blades' was kind of exciting. And then absolutely nothing became of them. Which seems a real shame. The availability of special-purpose touch-cover "blades" would seem to be a large niche selling point for Surface 2... something you can't get anywhere else.

It's a shame they obviously killed that effort. They didn't even make a limited run available via online ordering only... to minimize cost and over-head.

Before Microsoft can properly market the Surface ecosystem they need to resolve their distribution problems. Apple spent a ton of money building a global chain of Apple Stores. This has proven costly but effective. In these days of online shopping there needs to be a way for people to see and try the product before they hit Amazon or Taobao. Third-party distributors can't afford to do this so they don't invest in training their shop-floor staff to demonstrate their products.

It now looks like Microsoft have "got" this and they're building their own channel. A few years behind Apple but at least they've made a start.

I think the Microsoft will be pulling back on the stores, I mean they are not doing very well. I can't see them opening stores outside the US at all ever, not the way things are going now. Microsoft has moved away from Ballmer's 'Devices' strategy.

The keyboard covers connect through the I2C bus. Not nearly enough bandwidth for much more than what it's already used for.

There hasn't been an explosion of "lightning port" accessories either (the new iOS device port to replace the older 30-pin style connector that had a plethora of accessories based around it).

The trend in 3rd party accessories has been wireless, not proprietary connectors. Makes sense. If I want to make a 3rd party accessory would I rather it work with 1 specific device or most devices?

Surface is a bit of a flop. Why would third parties produce accessories for something that does not sell in high enough numbers for them to make a profit? Even Microsoft is not making these accessories.

I just want a simple cover that's like sold for 20$. All it does is cover the screen. No keyboard etc. The SP3 is big enough for me to type on and can be reclined to a position where its more ergonomical to do so.

Was thinking the same - I'm thinking of getting one to fulfil workstation & tablet roles - I've already a BT Keyboard & mouse, Dynadock etc. I do see myself ever using it a great deal as a 'laptop', so the Type Cover seems a big waste of cash for just protecting the screen when travelling.

If anyone knows of a 3rd party cover, please post...?

I heard the next Mortal Kombat game will have a special fatality for Sub Zero that is only activated when you rip your keyboard out of the Surface spine.

Enron said,
I heard the next Mortal Kombat game will have a special fatality for Sub Zero that is only activated when you rip your keyboard out of the Surface spine.

ROFL

what's the protocol of the spine? it may simply be that it isn't USB so the controllers and drivers required to support it are not made available to vendors like logitech.

Why build something that uses the spine, when I can build it with Bluetooth or USB, letting it work with everything. Bonus points for no special connectors or parts that need to be dealt with.

Another fantastic idea that Microsoft was unable to market properly.
The buzz has now faded long ago.

Wasted money. Wasted efforts. Wasted key distinctive feature.
Oh well...

This does seem to reinforce the image that Microsoft are not bereft of innovation, but often awful at execution. They seem to loose themselves between design and delivery so often. My first impression of the Surface was "Nice, but will they ship it?". 11 months for the SP1!

hardly. surface is now finally getting traction. the problem may have been that quite simply the device is very pricy and doesn't move a lot of units.

It is an indication that MS may have thought it got way overextended into areas outside of its core competencies and decided it was best to retrench, refocus on its core products, and then branch out again. If one's foundation is shaky, any structure based on it is hardly solid.

I didn't reflect on relative sales success, so please don't change my point. I feared they'd announced something cool (again) that they'd never deliver on, or do so at a much later date with a much changed product. Like Cairo, like Longhorn, like Courier, like Slate... Microsoft and vapourware have a long and litigious association.

TheCyberKnight said,
Another fantastic idea that Microsoft was unable to market properly.
The buzz has now faded long ago.

Wasted money. Wasted efforts. Wasted key distinctive feature.
Oh well...

Its a great idea on the surface, but I feel like when you go a bit deeper its a loosing idea. What can the blades do that a USB device cant really, other than form factor? Each blade is also specialized and only does one thing. What would be much better I think is if they had LED lights that could fill the blade. Then, you dont have to make a blade, you program a blade and have buttons/dials/whatever you want appear instead of swapping blades out.

It would be neat to open word and have the blade form keys. Then open a music maker program and the blade form dials and whatnot. Then you open the touch halo game and a controller appears and it shows stat windows or something. To me, that would make deeper sense than customized blades. But, just my thoughts.

@Scabrat

Good points.
Meanwhile, it's the complete package, Surface and its specialized cover, that made the idea so elegant.
Think about it : feeling for some music making today, snap the blade and go on! Video editing? Snap this other one and produce! It is a fantastic model.

But, pricing is also a key issue and $80 for a specialized cover just makes it inaccessible for the mass. Maybe this is the weakness Microsoft saw - no way to produce them cheaply.

At around $40, these would have flown out of the shelves and created a fantastic ecosystem.

TheCyberKnight said,
@Scabrat

Good points.
Meanwhile, it's the complete package, Surface and its specialized cover, that made the idea so elegant.
Think about it : feeling for some music making today, snap the blade and go on! Video editing? Snap this other one and produce! It is a fantastic model.

But, pricing is also a key issue and $80 for a specialized cover just makes it inaccessible for the mass. Maybe this is the weakness Microsoft saw - no way to produce them cheaply.

At around $40, these would have flown out of the shelves and created a fantastic ecosystem.

That is true. Price is key... It would be nice if this took off.

Scabrat said,

It would be neat to open word and have the blade form keys. Then open a music maker program and the blade form dials and whatnot. Then you open the touch halo game and a controller appears and it shows stat windows or something. To me, that would make deeper sense than customized blades. But, just my thoughts.

Sounds like the Libretto W100, but detachable?

Mugwump00 said,

Sounds like the Libretto W100, but detachable?

Kinda =). In fact a touchscreen on a bending display would be nice because then it wouldnt need to be thick and ridged. Its just drawing the power then that may be a problem.

I think the biggest problem is that for many accessories, such as a DJ pad or piano keyboard, USB versions already exist, and making it connect to the Surface in that way doesn't really add anything. In fact it takes away a lot, such a device would only work with a Surface, and only if the Surface using is okay not having their keyboard connected.

sphbecker said,
I think the biggest problem is that for many accessories, such as a DJ pad or piano keyboard, USB versions already exist, and making it connect to the Surface in that way doesn't really add anything. In fact it takes away a lot, such a device would only work with a Surface, and only if the Surface using is okay not having their keyboard connected.

exactly! why develop for this new port, when USB exists...

The excuse that Surface got only 1 port is lame.
If you need to connect something else with this accessory you want, get a device with 2 usb ports, not the Surface ;)

panacea said,

If you need to connect something else with this accessory you want, get a device with 2 usb ports, not the Surface ;)

Ever heard about a USB hub? :D

They dropped the music cover, yet I am hoping to see you be able to "click into a desk to have it like a kiosk. Maybe even being able to click into an external battery cover (no keyboard). How about clicking in to a car?

The video shows beauty and potential for Surface 'blades'/'spines'.... just because they're not here now, doesn't mean they won't come. Plus I can see it opening up to third-parties too to expand the peripherals even more.