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Microsoft Surface: a new tablet and a bold strategy

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On Monday Microsoft(s msft) did what many would consider unthinkable: It introduced Surface, a new 10.6 inch tablet with two different models designed and built by Microsoft. Aside from the Xbox 360 platform, mice and keyboards, Microsoft hasn’t had much success in its own hardware products, but the Surface slates look appealing and well thought out.

Even if the tablets do sell well — they’re set to launch in conjunction with Windows 8 later this year — there’s a key strategic difference from the successful Xbox: Surface tablets place Microsoft in direct competition with its licensees for both tablets and PCs.

Here’s the good

From what I saw of the Surface, there’s much to like. There are two devices, a 1.49 pound slate for ARM(s armh) chips with Windows RT and a 1.99 pound tablet for Intel’s(s intc) Ivy Bridge chips running Windows 8. Both are relatively thin, offer full-sized computing ports — think USB — and will be touch friendly with Microsoft’s Metro user interface. These are designed, according to Microsoft, to let the next version of Windows shine.

The full Windows 8 model includes a digitizer that detects when a digital pen is in use and then turns off the touch display for ink support. Unlike old tablet PCs where there was significant space between pen and “digital paper,” Microsoft says that when in use, the pen is only 0.7 millimeters from the digitizer, bringing the experience of actual writing to the tablet.

Both Surface devices have integrated kickstands and impressive-looking cover accessories that double as keyboards. These thin keyboards also include a trackpad, a great solution to the problem of reaching out to a touchscreen for navigation and input. Here’s a look at the device and accessories:

With the keyboard cover, touchscreen and kickstand combined with touch-friendly, full-featured Windows software, Microsoft’s Surface isn’t just a secondary device. Surface can be a complete, portable PC solution as well. Some would say Apple’s iPad(s aapl) is as well, and I would agree, to a point.

There are some amazing iOS apps that bring PC-like productivity, but there are still limitations. Surface, running Windows 8, may have fewer limitations and therefore find widespread appeal as an all-in-one PC and tablet device. In fact, I think Microsoft is betting on that, because it said the x86 Surface tablets would be priced to compete with Ultrabooks (i.e., laptops). And like many laptops, Surface can output its display to a high-resolution external monitor. Do that and you’ve got the keyboard and trackpad cover for a desktop solution.

Here’s the bad

Microsoft has effectively signaled a completely new strategy for its future. Instead of being content with licensing Windows to hardware partners, Monday’s actions say, “We don’t think our partners could integrate Windows 8 software with tablet hardware to make Surface.” Remember, just last week it was reported that HTC wouldn’t be allowed to build Windows 8 tablets; this could be why. And then look at the Windows logo on the front and back of this device.

How will Microsoft’s partners react? Those who make or plan to make Windows tablets have to feel spurned, as they may now need to compete on price or innovate beyond what Microsoft is offering in Surface.

And what about those Ultrabook makers? If Microsoft Surface is priced at or near the price of an Ultrabook, a good portion of potential buyers could go with the touchscreen tablet instead another laptop. Dell (s dell), Lenovo, Toshiba, HP (s hpq), Acer and Asus can’t be happy with Microsoft right now. This potential in-fighting in the Windows universe may be why Microsoft kept such a tight lid on the Surface event.

For all the cool factor and innovation Microsoft showed off with Surface, there are still some potential pitfalls. The company didn’t announce pricing or availability details yet. So for all the momentum it built on Monday, Microsoft can lose it the longer those details are held close. And if the price is too high, some of the Surface’s shine will be lost.

The company said the ARM version would be priced similar to current ARM tablets — think iPad and Android(s goog) devices around $400 to $500 and up — and that these devices would appear when Windows 8 debuts. The Windows 8 Pro model is due out 90 days after that. Both will be sold in Microsoft Stores and online, which could also be a challenge. Consumers want to play with a computer before the purchase, so if you don’t live near a Microsoft Store, will you take the plunge and buy online?

As always, the devil’s in the details

Regardless of what Microsoft’s partners think — even though that’s a big part of the long-term story here — Microsoft impressed many today, even though at times, I felt Microsoft was rushing out the product news, particularly the Windows RT model, to beat any Google Nexus Android tablet introduction next week, even though that should be a smaller, cheaper device akin to the Kindle Fire(s amzn).

The Surface accessories and the tablets themselves look capable of gaining a foothold in the tablet market that’s currently dominated by Apple. The hardware specifications (available here in PDF) appear to be generous and not anemic, so Surface doesn’t appear to be underpowered. At least not on paper.

That’s the key, however. Spec sheets, press releases, videos and a product demo do not a successful product make. The experience of using Windows 8 on the Surface devices is far more important. And that’s the big unknown right now. What is known, however, is that Monday will likely be considered a huge turning point in the history of Microsoft. For three decades, it was content to deliver software for a price to any hardware maker willing to pay. Now it seems that no price is enough for Microsoft to fully trust its future to computer makers.

31 Responses to “Microsoft Surface: a new tablet and a bold strategy”

  1. dstrauss

    Let’s get real for once folks. MS has sold over 600,000,000 Windows 7 licenses (OEM installs and off the shelf). If you can replace your aging notebook with an x86 tablet with the Type Cover – tell me you’re not interested. If you just want a complimentary tablet, would you like one that uses the same productivity software and files as your desktop/notebook – again, tell me you are not interested in RT. In our office, I support four users with Windows 7 notebooks and iPads – and all I ever hear is “why can’t my iPad do that” and “why are my iWorks/QuickOffice edits messing up my formatting” and “what do you mean I can see the edit tracking on my iPad?” Windows 8/RT is going to be a winner, whether at the top (Surface, Samsung 7H, Asus Transformer-like pad) or at the lower end with a souped-up B&N NookRT.

    • azbull

      Your are correct sir. The apple boys that make <30k giving predictions and advice to MSFT about what they must do is hilarious. Every dog has its day, and MSFT is a very large puppy.

  2. Hamranhansenhansen

    It’s interesting how Apple’s mobile PC is a big iPhone combined with a small MacBook, and Microsoft’s mobile PC is just the tiniest Wintel desktop ever. Just totally shrunken everything, with the exception of the Start menu, which was made bigger for touch.

  3. It can’t replace my work laptop. it has to be 15″ at least.
    It can’t replace my gaming laptop. it has to be 15″ and powerful.
    It can’t replace a mobile/outside tablet. it has to be 7″ or less.
    It can only be in house casual tablet/ultra pc … Ohh well.

    It can also be the reason MS is going to get a lot of heat and negative reaction from their partners. Its not like a Nexus brand that is done with the partners!

  4. Hamranhansenhansen

    Today’s systems have hardly any hardware in them. They are 99% software. The hardware today is equivalent to a CD/DVD from the past. It’s just a delivery medium for a hunk of preinstalled software on an SSD that can download more software via Wi-Fi. An ARM computer is a $5 chip with everything on it. An Intel computer today is a small motherboard with everything on it. An SSD is a chip. There is nothing for HP or Dell to do. It wouldn’t have helped Windows 7 if it shipped on various sizes of CD/DVD, all painted in various colors, and it doesn’t help Windows 8 if it ships on devices that are various sizes and colors. You make one device and sell a ton of them cheaply and people customize them with cases and apps and wireless accessories.

    This is the same thing they attempted to do with Zune and with Windows Phone, the 2 previous iterations of the Metro interface. So it will be interesting to see if it fails again or if the 3rd time is a charm.

  5. not true ! u got it wrong
    1. HP acquired PALM [webos] – April 2010
    2. Dell released streak – June 2009
    3. Lenovo – thinkpad tablet
    4. Asus – transformer – march 2011
    and the list goes on

  6. Bastian Nutzinger

    Very good article.
    I would take it a step further even. This move of microsoft is not only competing with Dell, Lenovo, HP, etc. in the tablet market or the ultrabook market. Especially the Surface Pro has the potential to cannibalize the complete PC market short of gaming rigs and professional workstations.

    Sure this won’t happen tomorrow. But if you think about it: What reason is there for an average PC user to buy anything else then a tablet if said tablet has a full version of windows 8 installed?
    Browsing, email, office. It’s all there. It’s probably going to be cheaper and more mobile then a ultrabook and when put into a dock with a proper mouse, keyboard, monitor you get a complete pc.

    So unless you really need more horsepower why buy a desktop or laptop?

  7. Very predictable given Microsoft DNA. Two very different tablets and two very different markets. Apple is 4:3, touchscreen only. meant to be used a lot in portrait, but flips quickly to landscape. MS is 16:9, typing first and touchscreen awkwardly second and meant to be used almost exclusively in landscape as stand and cover also make that flip awkward.

    The potential market for Apple is much larger than the MS path, even discounting the head start Apple has. Apple has nothing to fear from this. In fact, the annoyance factor will be a sales force for Apple.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      The way that Surface is really good for Apple is it is like Microsoft admitting we are in the post-PC era. In that case, Windows user, go ahead and buy that iPad you’ve been looking at. There is no XP Mark 2 coming down the pipe for you.

  8. Well, as far as I remember Microsoft has not done terribly well with their own hardware (except in the gaming area of course) but it’s obvious that they want a chunk of the huge tablet market – who wouldn’t. I guess the price will be a decisive factor. With the top ipad at 500 bucks, Microsoft is in for a challange.

  9. neeraj |ni(ə)rəj|

    I think there is a typo in the last paragraph, second line “Spec sheets, press releases, videos and a product demo do not a successful product make”

  10. Karl Klept

    Your points are good but another big piece of this is that Google has effectively brought the value of an OS to $0. Microsoft’s business model in desktops has been obliterated in mobile and they had no choice but to go with the Apple model because embracing the Google model would have been even further out of Microsoft’s comfort zone.

  11. Sohrob Tahmasebi

    I’m not going back to Windows and frankly I’m not all that impressed with this device. It might have got my attention had it debuted four or five years ago but now I’m firmly in the Apple iOS/Mac OS X camp and won’t be looking back.

  12. Andy Geleff

    From early photos, videos, and hands on impressions, I’m definitely excited. I want to wait until I can play with one for myself to see if it’s been properly executed, but I’m most definitely excited for the potential of these devices. They’re certainly iPad competitors, but not in the way most people think they are.

  13. Lindsworth Horatio Deer

    Finally Microsoft grows a pair of balls!!

    Why Microsoft built its own tablet — think Apple and Xbox. God Move Microsoft, as albeit a dominant force in the Desktop World, they barely exist in the world of Mobile Devices. Making their own hardware is risky, but waiting on a hardware partner is just not cutting it!!!!

    Should give them better control over pricing not to mention allow them to leverage developer support for this “new device”

    Need more info on the specs including the battery life as well as the performance. But it’s windows and if it can do the same work as a Ultrabook it’ll be a sure winner with the Corporate Warriors

    Partners, such as HP, who had plans to make Windows based Tablets, are sure to be pissed. But Microsoft had no choice; Google is getting serious with it’s own Tablet too, after recently updating the Chromebook line

  14. Jeff Kibuule

    Microsoft is probably tired of it’s finely tuned OS being pooped on by OEM crapware and decided enough is enough; time to build their own hardware!!!