Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft reenters the tablet game with Surface; touted as a "full PC" solution, with innovative construction & design, but without an announced launch date and firm pricing

Microsoft, everyone admits, has been late to the tablet game, and so it is trying hard to rectify that by unveiling its own hardware at a press event in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon (west coast time).

The Redmond company, though, doesn't really have the hang of these things, starting its own event over 40 minutes late. But when they finally got going the company was able to show off something that was actually pretty interesting – the Microsoft Surface.

Before getting into the specs and my own thoughts on the product, it is important to point out something: once again Microsoft previewed a product without being able to announce a hard launch date or pricing.

If you haven't read all the details about Microsoft's new tablet here are some details: Surface will come in two flavors – just like Windows – one running Windows RT, one running Windows 8 Pro.

The Windows RT tablet was the one demoed, as thin as an iPad, with a 10.6" display. The RT version will come in the typical tablet storage sizes of 32 GB and 64 GB, and will come with the Home & Student version of Office built in.

The Windows 8 Pro version will be significantly thicker and come with USB 3.0 and will be powered by Intel’s i5 Ivy Bridge CPU. It will sport more storage, as well: 64 GB or 128 GB. In reality, the Pro version is a thin laptop with a touchscreen. But lots of specs are missing (besides price), like battery life.

Several times during the presentation one heard the phrase "full PC", though Microsoft also stressed that their product was a tablet, as well. This split personality might be very attractive to buyers who want to replace their PCs with a tablet, but fear that they won't be as productive with a tablet. In fact, for these buyers especially, the Surface's Type Cover will be an attractive feature.

The tech press was very excited last night, finally having something nice to write about concerning Microsoft. But the lack of a launch date (Surface is promised to arrive around the time Windows 8 launches) and without solid pricing, means that excitement may well wear off. But at least the possibility exists that Surface will be an exciting product.

Consumers who would want to test drive Surface for themselves will find that hard, even once products are actually launched: Microsoft said Surface would be available at Microsoft stores and online. Maybe this situation will change before launch, but if this remains the same, Surface won't be found at your local Best Buy. (And what about markets outside the US? Apple always makes a point of talking about launch dates in other countries.)

Pricing remains key. Microsoft says that the Windows RT model will be priced "like comparable tablets based on ARM," while the Windows 8 Pro model will be will be "priced on par with Ultrabook-class PCs."

It should be remembered that Ultrabook pricing is above a grand, putting this version of Surface in a whole new category, though maybe that's the point.

Which all begs the question: is this aimed at Apple or Microsoft's own PC hardware partners? I'd guess that the answer is both. One has to target Apple today, with its market position so strong.

But the PC makers have fumbled their own tablet attempts and seem bogged down in creating products with outsourced engineering and development work, so it is possible Microsoft has concluded that their partners have dropped the ball and now Microsoft will lead. (It should be noted, though, that a number of nice Windows running very slim "ultrabooks" have been released lately. Does this move risk PC makers rethinking their Windows PC plans?)

To truly compete today innovative tech companies must get into custom design and proprietary components. Microsoft has done that with the Surface. In fact, much of yesterday's presentation was spent talking up the engineering and attempting to convince the tech press gathered that Microsoft could be a hardware company.

Ultimately, the success of Microsoft's attempt to get into the tablet game will depend on whether they can actually deliver, create an attractive ecosystem, lure developers, and price competitively. That's a tall order, but as you will see in the video below, and read in posts on tech sites, they're off to a good start.

(But I still don't get the idea of a product event without launch dates and pricing.)

It is clearly way too early to know what the entry of Microsoft into the tablet market will mean for the publishing business. Rumors yesterday suggested that Microsoft might be partnering with Barnes & Noble, but that obviously proved incorrect.

Did you notice what was missing from Microsoft's presentation (again, beside a launch date and pricing)? Partners.

Microsoft mentioned that Netflix would be available for Windows 8 tablets, but no one shared the stage with Steve Ballmer to demonstrate their apps. This may reflect the fact that Microsoft really does see Surface as a "full PC" rather than a media delivery device. But it also may reflect that Surface is still too far away to roll out third party content. (Post event "hands-on" time for the tech presss was limited and highly supervised, according to reports, leading one to believe that Microsoft still has lots of work to accomplish before an actual launch.)

Media developers can certainly be assured knowing we're still a ways away from seeing a third platform become as essential for their media app development as iOS and Android.