In unveiling its first piece of computer hardware ever yesterday, Microsoft signaled that it was ready to strut its stuff against longtime rival Apple for the booming tablet market. The new device, dubbed Surface, is expected to be available at an unspecified-but-competitive price when the highly touted Windows 8 comes to market later this year, Microsoft announced at a press conference in Los Angeles that had a sense of mystery and buzz about it that’s usually associated with the crowd from Cupertino.
“We wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation,” CEO Steve Ballmer said in unveiling a product that, unlike the iPad, has a detachable cover/touch keyboard for word processors and numbers crunchers, as well as a built-in kickstand for viewing videos. Ballmer, in fact, claimed that the device is “completely new and different” and “a whole new family of computing devices.”
At the same time, Microsoft’s focus apparently will remain on the eighth major iteration of Windows, which Balmer made clear remains the “heart and soul of Microsoft,” according to Michael A. Prospero, who live-blogged in Laptop.
“It was very important to have the hardware fade into the background with this product and have Windows rise to the surface,” Ballmer said.
The device will be about the same weight and thickness as an iPad but has a 10.6-inch screen compared to the iPad’s 9.7-inch high-res “retina display.” It sports cameras front and back, as does the iPad, but also has a USB port and connects physically to printers. Among the unanswered questions is whether it will use cellular networks or just connect to cyberspace via wi-fi.
Windows president Steven Sinofsky referred to Surface as “a tablet that’s a great PC … a PC that’s a great tablet.”
“Ballmer and other Microsoft executives repeatedly use the words ‘no compromises’ to describe the tablet computers they envision running Windows 8 and Windows RT -- which means that users will be able to use work-oriented tools like Microsoft Word and Excel programs, not just be used for watching movies and surfing the Web,” points out Shira Ovide in the Wall Street Journal.
That could be a big advantage, particularly in the business market where Microsoft has long enjoyed a substantial lead over its surging rival -- provided Apple doesn’t respond in kind. On the other hand, it faces quite a challenge catching up with the more than 500,000 apps already for sale in Apple’s App Store, as well as its tight relationship with developers, which rivals Microsoft’s relationship with PC software engineers.
That’s why Microsoft is emphasizing the hardware innovations that it hopes will rival Apple’s, points out the Financial Times’ Matthew Garrahan, “rather than show off any of the apps or content partnerships that many analysts believe it will need if it is to make the Surface a success.”
IDC analyst Al Hilwa sees the combination of PC and tablet features as a "true converged" device, writes Ovide. "A Swiss Army knife of a tablet?"
As such, “with its new tablet, Microsoft will effectively be competing directly with its biggest customers” –- the PC makers who have shipped with Windows installed for decades, writes Nick Wingfield in the New York Times. “When asked whether Surface would damage those ties, Sinofsky gently pushed a reporter in the direction of a stand of Surface tablets and said, ‘Go learn something.’”
In an interview after the announcement, Ballmer was asked to describe how Microsoft’s partners felt about its latest moves, writesBloomberg Businessweek’s Ashlee Vance. “Ballmer responded that he had used very precise language on stage and would not go beyond that.” Adds Vance (parenthetically): “He said nothing on stage that I recall as to how they felt.”
The reaction to Surface in the blogosphere appears to be mostly positive. “Wow, people actually like something new from Microsoft,” writesComputerworld’s Richi Jennings, who “curates” the observations of observers such as PC World’s Melissa J. Perenson, who observed: “The big question is, does it stand up to the hype? The answer...is yes.”
Reuters’“Breakingviews” columnist Robert Cyran writes that “Microsoft has managed to pull off a welcome surprise,” but the hed on his piece aptly sums up the rest of the commentary: “Microsoft Tablet Suffers From Lack Of Greatness.” He concludes: “To catch up, good may not be enough.”
But what choice does it have?
Microsoft’s “broadside against the iPad is a dramatic step to ensure that its Windows software plays a major role in the increasingly important mobile computing market,” writes the AP’s Ryan Nakashima in a story carried by the San Jose Mercury News. "They are saying it's a different world now and are trying to put the sexy back into the Microsoft brand," Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi tells Nakashima.
Sexy? Hmmm. When it comes to what has made it attractive over the years, I think most analysts would say that Microsoft has displayed a pleasant personality. But all dolled up in sleek piece of compatible hardware, Windows 8 indeed may wind up turning some heads.