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Microsoft is betting that people are ready to do more their tablets than they currently can do with their iPads.
With the unveiling of the MS Surface and Surface Pro this week, Microsoft made a bold bid to grab a piece of the tablet market by emphasizing input devices. The Surface’s most distinctive feature is the touch-sensitive keyboard-cum-protective screen cover called the Type Cover that also features a multitouch trackpad. Although Microsoft did not let journalists actually try out the keyboard at the unveiling, the company promises it will make it much easier to input text to the Surface than an on-screen virtual keyboard such as on Apple’ iPad would allow.
Not to be overlooked, the Surface also sports a USB 3.0 port, which will allow users to connect a printer and other peripherals.
Those features, along with the announced bundling of Office software, have led other analysts to declare the Surface the “first real business tablet,” and predict a warm embrace by corporate IT departments already heavily invested in Windows and Microsoft’s enterprise platforms like Exchange. While the growing BYOD movement has helped the Apple’s tablet gain some traction in the corporate world, the iPad as business productivity tool is still pretty much a jury-rigged affair, with clunky and kludgy keyboard accessories and dodgy security. If Microsoft is going to mount a meaningful challenge to Apple in the tablet space, the enterprise market is the place for it to start.
The input capabilities of the Surface could have strategic value to Microsoft beyond simply in the enterprise market, however. Among the first groups to see its potential were game developers, who recognized the USB port as a way to connect an Xbox controller to the Surface to create what would amount to a portable Xbox 360 console.
Immediately following Microsoft’s announcement Monday, game-maker 17-Bit Studios said it was developing a Surface version of its Skulls of the Shogun game, for both the ARM and Intel versions of the tablet that would support use with an Xbox 360 controller plugged into the USB port.
The Surface’s ability to support multiple input modes and to run software designed for anything from keyboard, to touch, to game-controller input will enable Microsoft to tap existing networks of developers already working in multiple related ecosystems, none more important than the Xbox ecosystem. If Xbox games can easily be ported from console to tablet without needing to be rewritten for multitouch input the Surface could prove to be a very popular portable gaming device, and Microsoft will have a vast installed base of potential users to market to.
Microsoft didn’t say as much at Monday’s press event, but the Surface will also, presumably, be tightly integrated with the Xbox Live platform, which is now the largest and most extensive video streaming and digital entertainment platform in the world, with content from nearly 100 different providers. Xbox Live apps have already been Metro-fied along with the Xbox itself, which will make them easily portable to the Surface. Thus, even if the Surface lacks for native apps it will not lack for content out of the box.
Will that be enough to turn the Surface into a genuine competitor to the iPad. Until we get more details from Microsoft on pricing and retail availability it’s obviously too early to know. And of course Microsoft is starting from way, way behind in the tablet raise.
Unlike the introduction of Windows Phone, however, with the Surface, Microsoft neither needs to or is trying to create an entire new ecosystem and developer network. The tablet is designed to leverage Microsoft’s deep strength in the enterprise, gaming and home entertainment markets, which will at least provide a starting point.