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.