Microsoft is holding back the ‘AI PC’ revolution


Look, we need to talk: The PC industry has a big problem. And it’s not hardware makers’ fault — it’s Microsoft’s responsibility. The hardware is here: Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and PC makers have delivered on their end.

Now, everyone is waiting for Microsoft to catch up and make Windows truly shine on these “AI PCs.” Can the company deliver something compelling in time?

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Tomorrow’s PC hardware, today

The AI PCs manufacturers are advertising right now are tomorrow’s hardware, today. I mean that in both a good way — and a bad way.

First, the good: On the hardware side, everyone’s doing a solid job! Intel has delivered neural processing units (NPUs) that can accelerate AI tasks in a power-efficient way. AMD has delivered similar hardware. Nvidia’s powerful GPUs are still the fastest solution for running AI models on your own hardware. And the  manufacturers have taken this hardware and integrated it into their PCs.

Now, the bad: On the software side, Windows isn’t ready. It almost seems as if Microsoft’s been blindsided by the wave of AI PCs. These are tomorrow’s PCs today in the sense that we have the hardware, but the software isn’t ready yet.

When I talk to PR people from computer manufacturers, they can tell a good story about the kinds of computing tasks an NPU like the one in Intel’s new Meteor Lake chips can do. And they’re right! But, when I ask about what that NPU actually does do today, they don’t have much to say.

AI PCs aren’t delivering AI

Lately, I’ve been reviewing some of these modern “AI laptops” for PCWorld. Thanks to their Intel Core Ultra CPUs, laptops like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Alienware m16 R2 have those built-in NPUs. Out of the box, that just means they can use Windows Studio Effects to do things like blur your webcam’s background and fake your eye contact in meetings.

I like Studio Effects. They’re nice to have. But the industry can’t build an entire AI PC marketing campaign on top of a handful of features Microsoft first launched for a few Surface devices back in 2022.

Windows studio effects Chris Hoffman/Microsoft

On a laptop with an NPU, you can turn on Windows Studio Effects in Windows 11’s webcam settings.

Microsoft is largely focusing on generative AI (genAI) tasks done in the cloud, on the company’s servers — whether you’re using a Windows PC, a Mac, or an iPad. Microsoft launched Copilot Pro, which brings genAI tools to Word, Excel, Outlook, and other Office documents, but it doesn’t need an AI PC at all — it has no way of using an NPU for anything.

 As PCWorld’s Mark Hachman points out, the PC industry is losing the argument for local AI. The idea that you could do AI tasks — generate and edit images, work with text, chat with documents, or whatever else — on your local PC is powerful. You’d be using your own computing resources, and you’d have more privacy and control over your own data. But the PC industry isn’t showing it off properly.

In fact, one PC manufacturer I recently spoke with is bundling a longer free trial of an AI-powered online tool with its PCs. That’s fine and all, but that type of tool works just as well in a browser or in a mobile app — it has nothing to do with “AI PCs.” If that’s all AI PCs have to offer, you might as well just buy a Chromebook or iPad instead.

Windows users — a captive audience for Microsoft’s web services

Microsoft seems to care about Windows mainly as a canvas for its online services and AI products, which it’s been pushing hard. With  a captive audience, it can build a customer base for services like the Microsoft Start feed of viral stories on Edge’s new tab page, Bing search, Microsoft 365 subscriptions, OneDrive storage, MSN weather, and so on.

In the same way, Microsoft has used Windows to push genAI features such as Copilot, which is fundamentally a web-based online service. Copilot might well open in a sidebar on Windows, but it’s more like viewing a web page in a sidebar than using a deeply integrated part of Windows. You can copy-paste text into it or upload an image file — or it can link to a few specific settings on your PC — but it can’t do much with your PC.

A recently released Spotify plug-in for Copilot is a good example of what’s going on: With Spotify for Copilot, you can ask Copilot to start playing a song, but Copilot will open Spotify in a browser window — not the Spotify app on your computer.

So, let’s be honest: Copilot is a fundamentally web-based technology that’s been bolted onto Windows to get an audience. But it’s not truly a part of Windows in a deep and meaningful way. There’s not much reason to use Copilot in Windows— you can’t do much with it that you couldn’t do with Copilot in a browser window on a Chromebook, or with the Copilot app on an iPad.

Samsung Copilot promo Samsung

Samsung is already advertising Copilot AI features Microsoft hasn’t even announced yet.

Microsoft has mysterious plans in the cards

One thing that makes the AI PC marketing campaign a complete mess is that Microsoft hasn’t yet explained its vision. Sure, it’s released a variety of vague statements about the cool new things Windows will be able to do — some day. We have a general idea that Windows 11 is getting a big AI-focused update this fall.  But that’s a long way away with these AI PCs already sitting on the shelves!

But what, specifically, are we looking forward to? Microsoft still won’t say.

That could change soon. Windows Central is reporting that an “AI Explorer” will be the “blockbuster AI experience” arriving in Windows 11 later this year. It’ll supposedly be an “advanced Copilot” with a history feature that will let you search everything you’ve done on your computer, in any application. Additionally, it’ll pay attention to what you’re doing on your computer and suggest tasks and helpful actions.

That sounds useful, but for now, it’s just a leak. It’s the kind of thing that Microsoft needs to do to make Windows important to AI — and to give everyone a practical reason to buy one of these AI PCs.

There’s some confirmation, though: Samsung’s official website looks like it’s revealing some of these more advanced Copilot features, too. The company says they will arrive “on the Galaxy Book4 Series starting in Spring 2024.”

Without any clarity from Microsoft, we’re sitting here looking at leaks and trying to parse statements on laptop product pages to figure out what to expect. That’s a problem.

Let’s hope this isn’t another Windows 8

Obviously, delivering deep AI integration in Windows is a huge task. It might take some time to get it right.

But I don’t think it’s uncharitable to criticize Microsoft on this. After all, the marketing hype cycle is spinning at high gear. Samsung, for example, is already advertising its laptops will have a bunch of AI features that Microsoft hasn’t even announced yet.

By launching AI PCs before Windows is ready, there’s already a narrative forming: “AI PCs can’t really do anything.” Now, in the future, PC manufacturers will have to explain that “AI PCs are here — for real this time!” That’s not ideal.

More importantly for Microsoft at a business level, the company is missing a narrow opportunity. Google is quickly improving Gemini and adding AI features to Chrome. Apple hasn’t announced anything, but we know the company is working on genAI in some way.

For its own sake — and for PC manufacturers’ sakes — Microsoft better deliver something useful and compelling. This is, after all, the same company that crafted a half-baked transformation of Windows with Windows 8 and spent years fiddling with it, only to abandon it along with the touch-first tablet and smartphone markets that were such a focus.

Now, without those universal apps, Microsoft is getting leapfrogged by the Meta Quest and Apple Vision Pro headsets. The HoloLens was fascinating, and Microsoft could talk a good game and give a great presentation, but the company never truly delivered on the hype people felt when the company showed off Minecraft on the HoloLens nearly a decade ago.

If the advanced Copilot features Microsoft delivers this year are similarly half-baked and not truly useful, Microsoft is going to fall behind once again. That’s bad for the PC ecosystem and all the hardware manufacturers that have given Microsoft this opportunity.

For the sake of PC users everywhere, let’s hope Microsoft delivers something interesting. And soon.

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