The Microsoft Tablet: The Surface

image: Microsoft

They did it, the bastards, they went and blew it up…

That was the thought that ran through my mind when I saw the first images from the Milk’s Studios (courtesy of the Verge). Yesterday Microsoft put its money where it’s mouth was and introduced a branded device. Let me repeat that, the originators of the OEM partner model introduced a BRANDED device.

After days of  wild guesses, rumors, and false flags Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows President Steven Sinofsky presided over the 48 minute unveiling of the Microsoft Surface family of devices. The devices are the Surface Windows RT (NVIDIA Tegra 3+) and Surface Windows 8 Pro ( Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5). The Surface Pro will come with USB 3.0 and a digital pen, the Surface will come with USB 2.0 and come with Office 2013 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and One Note) pre-installed. The tablets are  made with magnesium (VaporMg) and each comes equipped with an inbuilt kickstand . The Surface also comes with two covers, the Touch Cover and Type Cover for both devices.  And for the spec conscious here they are:

Surface Pro: Windows 8 Pro; 903 grams 13.5 mm thick. 10.6 in ClearType HD display. Micro SDXC, USB 3.0, Mini Display Port Video, 2×2 MIMO antennae. 64 and 128 GB models (3G not stated)

Surface: Windows RT; 676 grams 9.3 mm thin. 10.6″ ClearType HD Display. Micro SD, USB 2.0, Micro HD video, 2x@ MIMO antenna. Office Home and Student 2013 RT. 32GB and 64 GB (3G not stated)

Watching the presentation, it seems that Microsoft was really nervous about how the assembled crowd and public would respond; Sinofosky (who usually comes off a lot more naturally) stuck hard to the script for the early part of the event. Particularly funny was the demo fail while talking about the NetFlix , literally picking up with the same line like no one saw the fail. You got the sense that Sinofsky was both the most excited and most nervous of anybody there. Things got better when Windows Mike Angulo and head of the new Surface Group Panos Panay took the stage.  A lot of the presentation concentrated on the peripherals and about the hardware. We didn’t get to see a lot of applications (beyond NetFlix) and pricing and battery life remain unknowns.

What’s interesting to me is what set of circumstances moved a company that has been committed to not stepping on their partners toes (even as those partners gladly step on theirs) to this moment. I mean it was two years ago when the company squashed the Courier, a two screen tablet, months before the iPad; opting to open CES with Windows 7 tablets  by Pegatron and HP. Maybe it was the movement of OEMs to Google’s Android and Chrome OS. Maybe it was the year they pushed Windows Embedded, OEMs showed off prototypes, and then promptly shipped Android Honeycomb. Or was it the year HP bought Palm, showed of the TouchPad and announced they were going to put it on PCs shipped with Windows.

Whatever happened, we are here now.

Right now I can see how this could hurt but I also see how it doesn’t conflict with PC partners. Part of that reasoning comes from the fact that many hardware makers are going to be sticking with hybrid models, especially docking solutions that turn devices into laptops. The Surface could also help by creating a “halo” effect and set hardware design similar to Android Nexus devices.

The move to create a branded product illustrates just how competitive the consumer technology market has become in the last decade; also how different the PC business has become. A decade ago the idea of Microsoft creating a branded device, especially something s competing against their partners, would be unthinkable.  But Microsoft and its partners aren’t as tightly bonded anymore.

Many abandoned producing Windows tablets (except expensive model ) for Android as soon as Honeycomb was announced. HP bought Palm and produced the TouchPad to the consumer market, while quietly releasing the Slate as an enterprise device. Even now ,with most of the same vendors building Windows 8 devices, they still put time and R&D on Android. The reality has always been if something came along Hardware makers would leave Windows or use the threat of leaving as leverage. So in some ways the Surface can be seen as a Plan B to ensure hardware as it could be a kick in the pants of OEMs.

Ultimately Windows 8 success or failure will be determined by developers writing applications and the quality of the programs they write. What Microsoft did today was to signal that they mean for this platform to be competitive. There is no Plan B.

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