Microsoft Gets in the Tablet Game

By Cody Burke on 21 June 2012
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Microsoft SurfaceMicrosoft’s new Surface tablet may be good news for business travelers – if it delivers on what it promises.  And even if it doesn’t succeed, the Surface is good for the tablet market.

Against the backdrop of continued Apple dominance, Microsoft has thrown its hat in the tablet ring with the Microsoft Surface. The new tablet comes in two models, a slimmed down version running Windows RT, (the company’s simplified mobile Windows for tablets) and a professional offering that runs full Windows 8. Both enter a crowded but lopsided tablet market where the iPad dominates the full size tablet space and a confusing plethora of Android tablets fight for the scraps.

No tablet has cracked the code yet and become a true mobile workstation. Although popular for certain business use cases, the iPad’s lack of physical keyboard and full-featured business applications has kept the device from fully replacing laptops for serious knowledge workers. The iPad, despite its success, remains a supplemental device, not a primary one. Microsoft is clearly aiming for that primary device sweet spot with the Surface, particularly the Windows 8 Pro model.

Taking cues from Apple, Microsoft staged the announcement with much secrecy leading up to the event, and by all accounts, put on a good show for the eager crowd. This is Microsoft’s first attempt to build its own tablet hardware; the company is concurrently relying on third party hardware developers to release multiple upcoming Windows 8 tablets. Microsoft’s last attempt to take over hardware design on its own and do battle with Apple was the ill-fated Zune. The Zune, despite getting positive reviews for its design and functionality, never gained enough marketshare and now only lives on as software.

Although the new Surface tablets looked good in the demos, there are many questions remaining about the devices, particularly in terms of how robust they will be for mobile workers. What we do know is that both models feature a 10.6”, 16:9 “ClearType” 1920 x 1080 display, front and rear-facing cameras, an SD slot, USB port, magnesium casing, Gorilla Glass, and a kickstand for landscape view. Wi-Fi is enabled via a 2×2 MIMO antennae. The Surface for Windows RT is 9.3 mm thick (the iPad is 9.4 mm), weighs .68 kg, and runs on an ARM processor. It runs Metro apps, so will deliver a mobile experience comparable to competing Android tablets and the iPad.

The Surface also features a pressure-sensitive keyboard hidden in the tablet’s cover, called Type Cover. When closed, the cover looks similar to the iPad’s Smart Cover, but when open, a full keyboard is revealed on the inside. Using the tablet’s kickstand allows the screen to be propped up in landscape orientation with the keyboard rolled out in front, approximating the experience of working off of an Ultrabook or netbook. Regardless of how well the initial version of Type Cover works, expect to see competitive offerings from Microsoft’s OEM partners and Android tablet makers that include similar fold-out keyboards. Apple will likely follow suit as well.

Most intriguing for mobile workers is the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which runs full Windows 8 on an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 x86 processor. It is slightly thicker at 13.5 mm, adds a USB 3.0 port, and is available with either 64 or 128 GB of storage. The critical point about the professional Surface tablet is that it is essentially a full-featured PC in a tablet form factor. When combined with the Type Cover, the Surface is almost bypassing the iPad to go up against the MacBook Air and other Ultrabooks (for better or worse). If the typing experience is good, that is a win for Microsoft as it adds functionality that the iPad currently lacks and allows it to attempt to woo mobile workers. If Type Cover turns out to be gimmicky and not suited for real work, then the Surface will remain in the tablet arena.

Running a full version of Windows 8 allows the device to run Office, Photoshop, or any other professional desktop application. Not having to depend on mobile apps could be a game changer, particularly since Windows 8 has been designed from the ground up as a touch-screen friendly iteration of Windows. Past Windows tablets have struggled with trying to squeeze the desktop metaphor onto a touchscreen tablet, with poor results.

The question now is who will actually buy the Surface. The base model may struggle to compete with Android tablets and the iPad unless it truly brings something new to the tablet experience (I’m not sure the fold out keyboard will be enough). The professional model however, if it does indeed provide a full Windows 8 workspace and the ability to run desktop applications, may be able to differentiate itself from the iPad in ways that the BlackBerry Playbook, HP TouchPad, and the legions of Android tablets have not been able to. That would be a boon for knowledge workers, and truly allow them to ditch their laptops altogether in favor of a tablet.

The Surface is a significant and bold move for Microsoft, and you have to respect the audacity of going up against the dominant iPad, and maybe, just maybe, coming out ahead on some features. If the keyboard works as promised, expect to see knowledge workers moving toward a tablet-based future. For Microsoft’s (and the consumers’) sake, lets also hope that the Surface is not a repeat of the Zune.

(Pictured: Microsoft Surface)

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