Microsoft surprised everyone last year by deciding to discontinue its range of popular mice, keyboards, and PC accessories. After decades of Microsoft-branded PC hardware, the software giant has decided to focus on the Surface brand instead. Now a unique partnership will see Microsoft’s PC accessories live on, thanks to accessory maker Incase.
“The products will be the same products, but instead of saying Microsoft they’ll say Incase, designed by Microsoft,” explains Onwards Brands CEO Charlie Tebele in an interview with The Verge. Onwards Brands is the parent company responsible for the Incase, Incipio, Griffin, and Survivor brands that make accessories for laptops and phones.
This is the first time Incase will be offering PC accessories like keyboards, mice, and webcams, though. Incase will be using the same manufacturing components and supply chain as Microsoft, and is licensing the designs for a variety of products. If you’re a fan of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboards like the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard then these will live on, alongside an existing range of wired and wireless keyboards and the Bluetooth Number Pad.
Microsoft-designed mice will continue to be available too, including the Bluetooth ergonomic mouse and the modern mobile mouse. Incase will also offer Microsoft-designed speakers, audio docks, headsets, and the Modern Webcam. There are 23 products in total that will be available later this year.
New products that Microsoft started but never shipped are also coming. “There’s a new product coming out that Microsoft had under development,” says Tebele. “It’s a new ergonomic keyboard that’s very exciting and we’ll be announcing that under designed by Microsoft as well.” I asked Tebele if there might be more unannounced Microsoft designs that could see the light of day and he acknowledged “there’s a potential” for more.
All of these existing Microsoft PC accessories will look and perform exactly like they did before. Incase is licensing the designs from Microsoft but neither party is willing to disclose the exact terms of the deal. Microsoft will still retain ownership of its designs, so it could potentially bring back classic mice or keyboards itself in the future, or continue to renew its license to Incase. It’s important to note that Incase isn’t getting licenses for all of Microsoft’s PC accessories.
Consumers will be able to purchase this same hardware in retail stores, and the main difference is that it will be branded differently and supported by Incase. Instead of a Microsoft logo on the top of a mouse or keyboard there will be an Incase one, with “designed by Microsoft” on the packaging.
“The products that we make will be the same products that were on the market before,” says Tebele. “So it’s not a license in the sense where we’re just getting the name to use, we’re continuing the exact same products.”
Incase is aiming to have products back on the market soon, especially as stock of Microsoft’s PC accessories has started drying up. “We are re-engaging the supply chain and hope to have products in Q2,” says Tebele. “By the time we get into it there will be virtually nothing in the marketplace.”
This unusual partnership was struck months after Microsoft’s initial announcement to focus on its Surface brand. So why did Microsoft exit out of these particular accessories? “We made that strategic decision and the goal was to focus under the single Surface brand,” says Nancie Gaskill, general manager of the Surface business in an interview with The Verge. “We felt that this would better position us collectively with that focus. We stay convicted on going under one single brand.”
Around the time of Microsoft’s announcement, the company began having conversations with its designed by Surface partners to let them know it was now more focused on third-party companies manufacturing PC accessories. “On that phone call we mentioned we would be interested in stepping into the shoes of those products,” says Tebele. “Conversations evolved pretty quickly.”
Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboards and mice have proven popular over the years so there was some understandable disappointment from the PC community that these were going away. “We’ve definitely seen people not happy that they’ve been phased out and I think they’re going to be very happy that we’re bringing them back to market,” says Tebele. “Especially when they see the new ergonomic keyboard that we’re coming out with.”
Microsoft must have seen some of that disappointment too, so was this deal a reaction to that? “It’s not a reaction,” says Gaskill. “We started conversations early on… looking at designed for Surface partnerships. It gives us the opportunity to also feed the demand and customer love of these products.”
There’s already plenty of love for Microsoft’s existing PC accessories, but now Incase is the standard bearer for the future of them, too. While I’m expecting to see more unannounced Microsoft-designed products from Incase in the future, there will come a time when Incase makes its own mouse and keyboard designs.
“There’s a big space for Incase to develop hybrid products that fit between mobile and desktop,” says Tebele. Microsoft experimented with its Wedge Touch mouse and mobile keyboard, but it never really went much further. There’s a potential for Incase to bridge that important gap, especially as it’s currently known for laptop bags, sleeves, and cases for AirPods.
Incase is up to the challenge of designing and manufacturing something new, though. “This is a unique situation for us, because to make this type of high quality keyboard there’s a high barrier to entry,” says Tebele. “We wouldn’t have gotten into it if we couldn’t do products of this quality.”