Microsoft Surface: The Good, the Ugly and the Unknown

Out of nowhere, Microsoft had to make an announcement. Nothing concrete leaked before the event except that it would be tablet related. Everyone was skeptical, me included.

The presentation started and it seemed like something else. Don’t call it a tablet — it’s the new “Surface”… boring. It’s slim, but not much bigger than an existing tablet. It has a kickstand… umm right. A magnetic cover – yes, we’ve seen it somewhere before. Oh, and it doubles as a super-thin keyboard. Who’s waiting?

This is how the announcement happened. Microsoft nailed it. The company used privacy to create hype, a favorite tactic of Apple, and eventually managed to surprise most of the audience.

At least on paper, Surface tablets look great. Here are some in-depth thoughts about what Microsoft has done so far and the challenges ahead.

The hardware is sleek and polished. USB, memory card storage and video output open up a world of possibilities while essentially being a tablet.

The kickstand and cover make it the most PC-like tablet we’ve seen—in a good way. Windows 8 completes the package. Whether you like it or not, with this kind of polish, this form factor has many people looking forward to a fully functional desktop OS. I can already hear Apple loyalists screaming.

There are two versions of the Surface: one with an ARM chip, the other with Intel inside. Some insist that having more than one version is confusing and it can be, but it’s probably the only way Microsoft can attack the low- and high-end segments by using the same operating system.


Brand Name. “Microsoft Surface for Windows RT,” seriously? Why not just Surface and Surface Pro?

Companion is stabbing in the back. Whether HP, Dell and Acer knew Microsoft was developing something is irrelevant. Going forward, Microsoft will compete for the same customers as their hardware partners. That said, those companies haven’t exactly seized their opportunity to compete with the iPad. The Surface Pro will not only compete with OEM tablets, but their ultrabook offerings as well.

Although the two versions would let Microsoft attack two price points, the average consumer might think that both tablets are identical. The Pro and RT versions are similar to each other, but the latter is comparatively limited in hardware and software features, which can lead to confusion.

Experience. The most important factor on any computer today, let alone the tablet. Microsoft can claim that manufacturing both hardware and software gives it a unique advantage, but unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t have the process down. We haven’t actually seen the Surface tablet working and working yet. Microsoft must go beyond innovation and provide quick access, great battery life, and software that “just works.”

Availability. Windows RT models will go on sale in October when Windows 8 launches, and the Intel-packing, Surface Pro will arrive 3 months after that. A lot can happen in four months, let alone seven or eight – now we’re talking 2013-ish for Windows 8 Core i5 models here. Android may seem less of a threat today due to ICS rollout issues, but Google is no sitting duck. Plus, Apple will get closer to the next iPad as the months go by.

pen input. Microsoft has been obsessed about pen input since the original tablet PC a decade ago. Unless it detracts from the core tablet experience, I don’t see how it could go wrong. With the proper software, this can be a win-win for the Surface, especially on corporate environments.

cost. Microsoft claimed that the RT version will have competitive pricing with existing ARM tablets, which can range anywhere from $400 to $600. The Surface Pro will be closer to an Ultrabook, which starts at around $800 and can go up to $1,600. Since the Surface is still a few months away, I agree with Microsoft’s decision not to offer pricing just yet. It knows how much the devices cost to make, but in order to disrupt the market in October, the company will have to ditch the iPad.

Delivery. It goes back to Microsoft backstabbing partners. Will Microsoft compete for shelf space with other Windows 8 tablet makers? How will it distribute Surface tablets other than some Microsoft stores? Will they continue to innovate and support their branded tablets over time, or is it a one-time thing?

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