Microsoft Surfaces

Microsoft took the wraps off it's answer to the iPad yesterday at an event in downtown LA. Taking the Microsoft Surface name that most consumers aren't familiar with and re-branding it for their home grown tablet offering. (PS: The old Microsoft Surface, the big table, has been renamed, PixelSense) While some may argue that Microsoft is coming out with two little two late to combat the iPad, I don't think this can be written off as another would be competitor who like most of the Android's out there have failed to even come close to touching what Apple has in the iPad.

The Surface represents the first time Microsoft has directly competed against it's own hardware partners. In some ways this marks a shift for Microsoft. They realized with Windows Phone that they needed to control their own destiny and not leave it up to their partners to produce products that were compelling, they had to guide them along the way. With Surface, Microsoft isn't just guiding other partners, they are showing their partners what they should be doing at the bare minimum and challenging them to compete with them in a meaningful way to improve the Windows 8 ecosystem beyond what would have happened without Microsoft's intervention.

Microsoft, by launching two tablets that are nearly identical in size and weight, yet vastly different in capabilities is really pushing to show how Windows 8 is their desktop and mobile solution, with no need for a separate operating system like Apple has. While the whole Windows 8 Pro on x86 hardware vs Windows RT running on ARM based hardware (in this case from Nvidia) may be confusing for consumers up front, the fact that this is a premium product from Microsoft, sold direct to consumers, I can only hope Microsoft will put the marketing muscle behind these tablets to make it clear to consumers what the advantages of each hardware platform offers, otherwise people will continue to purchase the iPad because they very clearly understand what it can do.

Microsoft is showing with this Surface announcement that they have very carefully been watching what Apple has been doing and have calculated this response.  The Surface Touch Cover is a perfect example of this. Turning the protective cover that locks in magnetically much in the way the iPad Smart Cover does, but it also includes a full keyboard shows that Microsoft isn't looking to compromise the experience of Windows no matter what format it's presented in. The Intel version sporting a mini display port, allows it to turn into a full fledged desktop capable of supporting an external monitor. This shows Microsoft is serious about these devices being used not just for content consumption, but also for creation. This is also where Microsoft can really work to leverage the vast number of Windows developers to push the adoption of the Windows Store and the advantage of having a traditional desktop environment running on a tablet as well.

As much as I think Microsoft hit a home run with what they did show yesterday, they also left out just as much. Are any carrier partners in the mix for 3G/LTE models? What will these things actually cost? Is the Surface Touch Cover included to complete the whole PC picture, or is it an accessory you will have to buy? What is the battery life and other specifications for the hardware inside these devices? These are all questions Microsoft hasn't addressed yet that need to be answered before the whole landscape of this new Surface product can be fully evaluated.

Again, this step from Microsoft represents a monumental shift from Microsoft in the way they do business. Microsoft is taking the keys away from it's hardware partners to put themselves squarely in the driver's seat for the future of Windows 8 in the tablet form factor. Their partners will really have to work to differentiate themselves with their own Windows 8 slate form factors, because now that Microsoft has put everyone on notice, Samsung, Lenovo, HP and Dell need to give consumers a reason to keep buying from them and not Microsoft directly.

So has Microsoft bested the iPad? That remains to be seen. Too many questions still surround the Surface product line. One thing is clear however, Microsoft has already bested every Android Tablet on the market today and has unveiled what I consider the first real threat to Apple's iPad dominance. Microsoft hasn't taken the crown from Apple in any way yet, but they have unveiled a product that combines the full computer experience of a laptop with the lean back and enjoy content experience of a tablet better than anyone else.