To some serious head scratching, Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablet device at a refreshingly non-star-studded event in Hollywood, Calif. (Sorry Steve Ballmer.)
The device looks to somehow more thinly slice the space between current tablet devices and ultrabook computers, packing features from both segments. More importantly for Microsoft, the device is both powered by the company’s newest Windows 8 operating system and is in a package designed by the software giant.
(It should also be noted that this Surface device should not be confused with Microsoft’s previously launched Surface device targeting retails channels.)
The hardware package includes a typical tablet form-factor sporting a 10.6-inch screen, but with the addition of a kickstand on the back side to support a table-top viewing position. The casing is also made from a type of magnesium that allows for a very thin outer shell that is still rigid and durable.
Perhaps the device’s most unique feature is its screen cover that embeds touch sensitive technology allowing users to interact with applications on the screen without touching the screen. To take advantage of this technology, Microsoft will also offer a slightly thicker cover that includes a keyboard for those looking to move closer to a traditional laptop device.
Microsoft said that two versions of the Surface would be available, one will run a lighter version of the Windows 8 OS, dubbed Windows RT, and sport an ARM processor similar to what powers most smartphones. A more powerful version will run the full Windows 8 OS and use Intel’s Core processor unit.
The different models will also sport differing memory specifications, with the Windows RT unit available with 32 gigabytes and 64 GB of memory, while the Windows 8 version will be available in 64 GB and 128 GB versions. Unlike most tablets, the Surface will also include USB ports for the attachment of peripherals.
Unlike other device-centric launches, Microsoft left a lot to be announced in the future, including most importantly a launch date and pricing. While the device specifications are important to the overall performance of the products, those two details are likely to be significant contributors to its success.
Analysts noted the move appears similar to what Apple has always done in packaging its hardware and software together, and something that Google has dabbled in with its Nexus line up and could expand with its recent purchase of Motorola Mobility. This strategy has garnered some concern that software makers will now be competing against their hardware clients.
“By taking this approach, Microsoft needs to make sure it hits the market running as it is essential the tablet is properly marketed and shows its full potential if it has any hope of displacing Apple’s iPad in certain segments,” explained David McQueen, Principal Analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, in a report.
Others noted that the move to produce its own hardware signals Microsoft’s increasing dissatisfaction with the hardware community in not taking advantage of all the features the company is baking into its software code.
“On the hardware front, bringing out its own device ahead of the Windows 8 launch could imply that Microsoft is not happy with devices being built by its OEM partners or that it’s not satisfied with only taking a licence fee from selling Windows based tablets,” noted Ovum in a report. “Either way, the move is a vote of no confidence in these partners, who should rightly feel slighted … or challenged. Rarely is it a good idea for an OS owner to start competing with its OEM partners, but Microsoft is clearly taking a page out of the Apple playbook by bringing Surface to market.”
Perhaps the devices best chance for success will be in the enterprise market, which so far has begun to slowly adopt Apple’s iPad device. Others have tried to penetrate this segment, with little success, i.e. Research In Motion’s PlayBook device.
“If it has the requisite Windows office applications available from launch – across both device types and suitable peripherals to make input easier – at a price point that is competitive, then I do see it displacing notebooks and netbooks in the office,” added McQueen.
As for the impact the device could have on the wireless space, that is still to be determined. Initial specifications do not mention anything about cellular broadband support for the devices, which means it is unlikely carriers will have a direct connection to the success or failure of Microsoft’s tablet.
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