As we're all all too aware, the tablet market has been dominated by Apple since the April 2010 introduction of the first iPad. While there have been several quality Android tablets released to compete since, outside of pure budget plays like the Kindle Fire that all but ignore the presence of its operating system, they've failed to make much of an impact with the masses. Other tablets like HP's TouchPad and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook suffered from corporate indifference with the former and corporate incompetence with the latter. What this has all led to is a competitive vacuum that Microsoft seems poised to fill with their surprisingly well-kept-secret announcement event yesterday.
While we were expecting a Microsoft-branded tablet to leverage its well regarded Xbox branding, instead Microsoft recycled the Surface table name (which is now PixelSense) for its two-pronged tablet attack. Surprisingly, for Microsoft of recent vintage outside of its Xbox stuff, the unveiling was spectacular and sure-footed. Not only did Microsoft pull an Apple with the secrecy and subsequent excitement surrounding the event, they clearly pulled together an A team of designers and engineers to manufacture tablets that even Cupertino's famed group would surely be proud to call their own, right down to the clever cover designs.
They say if you want something done right, do it yourself, and Microsoft clearly has taken that to heart, joining Apple in controlling the entire tablet eco-system, and, unlike HP or RIM, seemingly doing so with conviction. Obviously Microsoft will still let just about anyone else create Windows 8 tablets and hybrids, but the bar has been raised to the point where any type of half-hearted effort will look foolish in comparison and destined for failure.
It's easy enough to check out all the features yourself, but the key takeaway is that we'll have two tablets from Microsoft, Surface, which will be released in the August 2012 timeframe around the same time as Windows 8, and Surface Pro, which will be released about three months after Windows 8. Surface runs Windows RT, which is compatible with all Windows 8 software and some hardware, but is not compatible with legacy Windows-compatble software or most legacy hardware. Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 8, which features desktop access, and is compatible with most legacy Windows-compatible software and hardware. The best way to look at the two different models is that Surface is a pure tablet experience, like an iPad, while Surface Pro is a hybrid computer, essentially a laptop with a touchscreen. Both models will look roughly the same, though the Pro model is thicker and heavier, features more ports, has a higher resolution (1080p versus 720p), has native support for pen input, and will naturally cost more.
As for price, no firm pricing has been discussed (just like with the release dates), though Microsoft has vaguely indicated that Surface will be priced similarly to other ARM-based tablets, while Surface Pro will be priced similarly to Ultrabooks. Most likely that translates to a starting price of $399 for Surface and $699 for Surface Pro, but we could be talking as much as $100 to $200 more than that. Obviously, the cheaper the better, but I'm just not sure Microsoft can use these as loss leaders like an Amazon can with something like the Kindle Fire, or Microsoft was able to do for the first few years of the Xbox 360's existence.
From my perspective, Surface will really be exciting only when a sufficient volume of Windows 8 applications are available, because right now that's the only way to truly compete with the iPad unless you can significantly undercut the price. With the hardware specs Microsoft is putting out there, undercutting the price by enough for most people to take note is not likely. With that said, the look and functionality of the Surface device shown can compete with anything out there, even though we don't know how snappy the performance is or what the battery life will be like. First impressions matter, though, and at least it's worth talking about and getting excited for so far.
On the other hand, Surface Pro seems like a slam dunk, a true laptop and Ultrabook replacement, with all the benefits of a tablet and none of the clunkiness of a laptop, a true next generation computing device. As a satisfied iPad 2 owner, I still have not found the perfect combination of accessories and workflows to make the iPad 2 my only computer when traveling, but with a Surface Pro, I see little to no compromise needed. Again, to know for sure, we'll need to know how well these perform (again, a hallmark of something like the iPad), whether or not they run silently, and, perhaps as important as anything else, what kind of battery life we can expect from such a beast. Really, anything less than around 8 hours would be something of a dissapointment, though this will surely depend on how the device is being used (i.e., using it like a tablet will be less of a drain than using it for desktop-style applications and multi-tasking).
Of special note is Microsoft's engineering of the Touch Cover and Type Cover, which pack in all kinds of state-of-the-art technology, including accelerometers and a trackpad, into their ultra-thin designs. The Touch Cover features a flat keyboard surface, while the slightly thicker Type Cover features a special type of mechanical keyboard that should offer a more traditional typing experience. Both work over Bluetooth and attach magentically to the base of the tablet, which itself features a built-in kickstand. Both innovations take Apple's wonderful Smart Cover design to the next logical level and addresses one of the few shortcomings when using a tablet like a traditional computer, the typing experience.
To wrap this up, we've long been hearing of a Google-branded budget tablet to offer the true Android experience that Amazon has forsaken with the Fire. With the bar raised even higher, Google has their work cut out for them, though they can take clear solace in their smartphone dominance, led of course by Samsung's tremendous success in keeping pace with Apple in that area all by themselves, but the mandate is clear--get serious about competing, because Microsoft is no longer playing around.