Will Microsoft Surface rule the living room?
Microsoft is late to the party with its new tablet device. Can it trounce the iPad?
Announced earlier this week, Microsoft Surface is the firm's attempt to fight back in the post-PC world. It has a range of features, some of which the iPad doesn't - and it sports Windows.
The Surface is a sleek, 10.6 inch affair, making it both larger in display area than Apple's iPad, and thinner. It has a USB port, unlike the iPad, which is notoriously locked down. It comes with a cover that is also a ridiculously thin keyboard, that attaches to the Surface using a magnetic connector. Users can choose from a 3mm-thick touch-sensitive keyboard, or a more traditional and only slightly-less emaciated 5mm one, with conventional keys. Oh, and it has a stylus.
The Surface will come in two flavours. The first to ship will be a unit running the ARM chip, using Windows RT. This is the consumer version of the Surface. An Intel-based version targeting business users will ship around three months later.
The core difference, other than performance, will be the flexibility of the software. Microsoft RT will only permit applications running on Microsoft's Metro UI. The full Windows 8 version of Surface will likely permit Win32 apps, too, and will be priced at roughly the same level as ultrabooks.
There are a lot of things that Microsoft isn't telling us. We don't yet know its battery life, how much it will cost exactly, or when it will ship. We don't know its resolution, but a high-resolution display like the new iPad's would be a big bonus for users.
It's unclear whether Microsoft will make this fly. It faces some major challenges, not least of which is Apple's dominance in the tablet space. Let's not forget that Microsoft has tried to play catchup before, such as when it released the Zune personal media player to try and challenge the iPod. The Zune faded from view. And after a long period in the wilderness while it tried to revamp its mobile phone platform, it launched the Kin phones, which again died on the vine. Now, it's talking about only selling the Surface online, presumably to avoid competing in retail outlets with other Windows tablet and PC vendors. This will make it difficult for users to find, though.
But in spite of these challenges, Microsoft has had its successes, too - and in particular, they tend to be in the living room. The XBox conquered the gaming and TV viewing space in a way that the Apple TV didn't. I'm excited to see the Surface married with Microsoft's Smartglass, which promises to be an asset to people watching movies and playing games. Smartglass serves as a companion to the XBox, turning it into a controller, and a secondary information source, providing more information about whatever is on the big screen. Microsoft must provide support for Smartglass on the consumer version of the tablet. If it doesn't, it'll be missing a huge opportunity.
There's one other thing in Microsoft's favour: its less dictatorial attitude. The company knows it has a hard act to follow in the tablet space, but Apple's downfall could be its draconian approaches to everything iPad. It stops developers from publishing their apps, often with little explanation. It imposes fees and policies that could almost be called punitive on its publishing partners, and it does this in the name of convenience.
If Microsoft can create a solid ecosystem of applications for Windows RT and get Smartglass right, it could leverage its existing XBox base to back-end its consumer-level tablet offering into the living room. But it would have to do this quickly, before Apple launches its much-rumoured TV. And we probably won't see the first Surface units roll out until the Fall.
Will you buy Microsoft's Surface tablet?
Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets