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Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy

Surface looks to be an intriguing tablet in the short term, but harmful to Microsoft's fragile partner ecosystem. Consider these five possible motivations driving Microsoft.

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface
About two years ago, shortly after Apple's original iPad arrived, I found myself in Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's office, taking notes on the new tablet, which I propped up on an attachable keyboard. Ballmer strutted in, took one look at my contraption, and said: "If you work hard enough, you can make anything into a PC."


And on a Monday night in Los Angeles, sitting 20 feet away from Ballmer as he stood on stage to introduce Surface, a tablet manufactured by Microsoft, running a version of Windows 8 designed for a tablet user experience, with a built-in kickstand and a magnetic cover that doubled as a keyboard, making the entire contraption look like a PC…a voice tempted me.

But I refrained.

During the past two years, I have stood firm in my belief that Microsoft has been making compelling moves, from its acquisition of Skype to its evolution of Azure and its investment in Nokia, even as critics disparaged the company as the industry's has-been, even in the face of dismal mobile market share numbers.

I have sung the praises of Windows Phone 7--since the beginning, really. I've been excited about Windows 8--not only the functionality, but also the possibility and promise of a seamless experience from the desktop to the tablet to the smartphone. As Microsoft's Windows president, Steve Sinofsky, said about Surface on Monday night: "A tablet that's a great PC; a PC that's a great tablet."

And Surface seems like a very good tablet. It's exciting that Microsoft is launching it with Windows 8. But even if Microsoft has, as Ballmer pointed out, a long hardware history (mouse, keyboard) and some success (Xbox, Kinect), Surface represents a distinct change in strategy. It may give the company's fledgling operating system a boost out of the gate, but it may also do irreparable damage to a partner ecosystem Microsoft has taken great care to build and nurture.

What little I saw and touched, if ever so briefly, seemed competitive, inviting, even if Microsoft responded stoically to repeated requests for details. The Windows 8 RT Surface tablet carries an Nvidia chip--quad core, one hopes, but Microsoft wouldn't say. The Windows 8 Pro Surface tablet uses Intel's Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor--maybe dual core, maybe quad core.

Both models have 10.6-inch ClearType displays, and they've been designed for wide-viewing mode (16x9). But Microsoft wouldn't reveal the screen's resolution, nor what it meant that the Windows 8 Pro Surface is "Full HD." Microsoft VP Michael Angiulo said it meant: "A combination of a very specific pixel geometry, render, and an optical bonding process, that together create the effect that your eye can't distinguish between the individual pixels at normal viewing distances." I see.

Nothing on battery life, nothing on camera resolution, nothing on memory capacity.

But isn't it likely that the Surface tablets will be comparable, specification-wise, to other tablets? The connectivity options are solid--both include 2x2 MIMO antennas for extra strength Wi-Fi, and the Pro version includes pen input. Both are thin and light, according to the published specs. The Windows 8 RT Surface is about the size of the current-generation iPad, and although it felt just as light when I held it, it sure seemed more thick than 9.3 mm. I'll have to measure the Surface and the iPad side-by-side when I get the chance.

Microsoft said the price of the Windows 8 RT Surface will be comparable to the price of other consumer tablets, while the price of the beefier (and heftier) Windows 8 Pro Surface will rival the price of Ultrabooks.

Microsoft, of course, doesn't want anybody to think these are your standard tablets. Company executives went out of their way to lavish praise on the engineering quality of the Surface, an annoying and mandatory industry habit that's starting to sound like carnival barking. Sinofsky bragged that "it feels natural in your hands," that it's the first PC to be made from magnesium, that its "liquid metal is formed into an ultra-rigid, ultra-light frame." He said that it's "airy" and "finely balanced" and that the case is made from a "physical vapor deposition process." Fancy.

Angiulo talked about the tablet's vent, describing what he called perimeter venting, for uniform distribution of air, which somehow makes the device comfortable to hold.

Panos Panay, a member of the Microsoft Surface design team, gave us more, saying that the design goal was to make the hardware "fade into the background." He talked of seamless, perfectly formed lines and case mold thresholds. Talking about the built-in kickstand, he said with some drama: "We knew that if we did not get the kickstand perfect, this device would not work. We could not take any chances." Talking about the custom hinges on the kickstand, he said: "They were spec'd to feel and sound like a high-end car door."

"You're going to want to hold it, I promise you," Panay said. I don't know about you, but there are some things I want to hold (a basketball, a fork full of lasagna, a stack of Benjamins, the hand of a loved one) and some I don't really need to. Just sayin'.

The kickstand, which is sturdy when in use, hidden when not, is nifty. The Surface covers are creative. They protect and decorate the device, and their underside serves as a keyboard. One version is a multitouch keyboard, with track pad and keys for the Metro user interface. It has no tactile feedback and felt a little antiseptic to me. The other version is a very thin keyboard for touch typists. These covers also have accelerometers, so the Surface knows what mode they're in (keyboard, flipped back, covering the display). Great ideas.

My early read on Surface: long on hype, short on details, but plenty of promise.

However, as intriguing as it is in the short term, it's also confusing, and ultimately a mistake. Not only does the product seem unnecessary in a very crowded field, it seems harmful to Microsoft's fragile ecosystem of partners--on which the company's fortunes have long rested. I can see no transformational gain, where the integrated system approach (see: Apple) outweighs the risk.

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