The Surface surfaces – Is Microsoft’s new tablet an iPad killer?

by Lisa Caplan

Microsoft held a stealth press event yesterday to unveil a new line of Windows 8-based tablets simply called, for now, Surface. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, although some pundits wondered if the secret L.A. location and Microsoft’s recent purchase of a large share of Barnes and Nobles e-reader Nook might not signal an Xbox-oriented or Kindle Fire-like consumption tablet release with some Hollywood tie-in. The select group of media invitees continued to speculate on live blogs until seconds before CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage.

What Microsoft showcased was a pair of tablet-notebook hybrids, although presenters steered far from that consumer-repellent term. One version offers some serious enterprise solutions, and one is aimed squarely at Apple’s iPad, which commands 62 percent of sales in the $75-billion American tablet market. Ballmer, of course, made no mention of Apple saying the tablet launch’s primary purpose is to “prime the pump” for the upcoming release of Windows 8.

Cover Story

Both models have screen sizes almost a full inch larger than the iPad (10.6-inches to the iPad’s 9.7-inches), are made of a magnesium “VaporMG” casing, with Gorilla Glass 2 screens, USB ports, and SD card slots. They run an interface called Metro, a user-controlled touch system.

The consumer model, Windows RT, will house an Nvidia Tegra processor and scaled-down versions of Windows 8 and Microsoft’s Office productivity suite. It is .1 millimeters thinner than the iPad, a wee bit lighter, and will come with 32 or 64 GB of storage.

The emphasis at the presentation, and much of the media buzz, centered on the cover. It looks like a SmartCover for iPad complete with magnetic clips, but opening it reveals a flat-surfaced, super slim keyboard with touchpad. There is also a kickstand built in, which may seem gimmicky, but will make typing a lot easier. There’s a more tactile keyboard option too, with actual buttons that adds a bit of girth.

The Windows 8 Pro model is bigger, has an Intel Core i5 "Ivy Bridge" processor, microSDXC slot, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video and up to 128GB of storage. It comes with a digital ink stylus, along with a better keyboard and touchpad and will be able to run Windows 8 proper.

Stiff competition

OK, so the hardware looks great. The design is kind of love it or hate it, but it’s clearly well thought out. But, can it compete with the iPad? It’s a tough question to answer because Microsoft left so much unsaid. There is no word yet on battery life, nor on pricing, although Ballmer insists it will be “competitive” suggesting the RT will start at around $500-$600 and the Pro near UltraBook prices in the $900-$1000 range. No mention was made as to whether Surface is Wi-Fi only or will have cellular connectivity. Even the release date is unspecified, some sources suggesting it will be timed to coincide with the launch of Windows 8, while other predicting a later pre-Christmas roll-out.

The biggest issue though is content, more specifically apps. Tablet owners want Office, and that includes iPad devotees as evidenced by the never-ending rumors of an MS-developed iOS version, and dozens of apps offering some form of Office compatibility (think QuickOffice Pro HD or Office2 HD). Having the real thing, even in a lite version, is going to be a major selling point.

There will be no backwards compatibility with existing Windows apps, however, leaving the Surface facing the same software dearth that put RIM’s Blackberry Playbook on its ill-fated course. Developers are already competing on two different platforms (iOS and Android), both with proven track records in sales. It will take some serious incentive to get enough third-party apps ready on an all-new, unproven operating system in time for a 2012 release.

If the question is did Microsoft just preview an iPad killer, or even an iPad contender, the short answer is yes. And no. For enterprise the Windows 8 Pro holds promise. In fact I’m hardly an enterprise user, and I think I want one. The anticipated price point and similarity to UltraBooks and MacBooks begs the question of where it will fall in a Windows ecosystem, but it’s pretty sexy even without a fruit logo.

Close, but no cigar?

The RT’s future seems lees certain. To beat the iPad and the various Android tablets the Surface with Windows on ARM needs to be better, not merely as good. I don’t see it. The keyboard may seem ingenious, but as someone who has tried no less than 10 variations of for-iPad keyboards, I can assure you the typing experience, for the touch typist especially, won’t be much better than a touch screen. It’s the lack of tactile feedback that plagues both.

It’s safe to assume that for digital publications and e-books Microsoft will be well stocked with Barnes and Noble’s catalog, but apps make up the biggest and most interesting part of the iPad experience. Without a bevy of them, I don’t see this new contender grabbing the youth market or anyone’s imagination.

If Microsoft wants a hit, they need to integrate the Surface with their only other successful hardware venture, the Xbox. Microsoft needs to integrate the whole Xbox LIVE experience and use the tablet as some sort of uber-controller.

All in, I think Microsoft is on the right track. While the first iteration of the tablet will be just that, a version one, the company has a history of patience. If they woo developers and produce a second generation of consumer tablets with a full Windows OS, they may fulfil Ballmer’s promise of an “intersection between human and machine” that really can improve “all aspects of the experience, hardware and software … working together.”

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