Microsoft proved that it could keep a secret and turned the tech community on its head Monday afternoon in Los Angeles, California with the unveiling of its Surface line of tablets. This was easily the most speculated on ( and shortest noticed) tech announcement in years and most of the speculation was wrong. In essence Balmer and his crew designed what could be game changing, cutting edge tablets; one to run Windows 8 RT and one to run Windows 8 that could stall the mad rush to the iPad, Macbook Air and the Apple operating system generally. However, note I said “could”. After all the flash and glam, Microsoft left some key questions unanswered. But before we address that, lets look at the flash and glam a bit shall we?
After an late start that Microsoft smoothed over with free flowing adult beverages, Steve Ballmer came out and made it clear from the outset that this was going to be a hardware announcement by hankering back to the history of Microsoft as a hardware builder over the years. However, the trip down memory lane didn’t really prepare you for what Microsoft unveiled. First up was the Microsoft Surface. The Surface is designed to run Windows 8 RT and will be powered by a Nvidia “Tegra 3+” chip according to Nvidia’s Rene Haas speaking today at Computex. Hass promised that the processor would generate so little head that fans or extensive cooling arrangements would not be needed . Well the Surface has no fan but it does have what Microsoft calls “Perimeter Venting” , a single vent that circles the entire device to allow for cooling. Inside, the device will have not one but two MIMO antennas for exceptional Wi-Fi. It will also sport a microSD slot and a USB 2.0 port. In addition it will have a Micro HD video plug and a 10.6″ ClearType HD Display. The tablet will be offered with 32 GB and 64 GB storage options. All this goodness is enclosed by what Microsft calls a Vapor Mg magesium unibody case. The case is beveled at a 22 degree angle aand is a rather amazing 9.3 mm thick and weighs in at 603 g. Did I mention that it has a built in kickstand as well?
While its not quite clear from the briefing, the Surface seems to come pre-loaded with Office Home and Student 2013 RT. Microsoft makes using Office easy with the introduction of two keyboard options; the Touch Cover and the Type Cover. Both do double duty as covers for the Surface and the Touch Cover is but 3mm thick and as the name implies it is a touch keyboard, the Type Cover is a bit bigger at 5mm and has movable keys. Both attach magnetically to the Surface and according to hands on reports its a firm connection to the tablet. It also seems to come in several colours.
The next member of the Surface family was the Surface Pro. The pro is slightly heaver and thicker, at 903 grams and 13.5 mm thick. The Pro or “Type 2″ as it is described, runs Windows 8 Pro, has the same 10.6” ClearType HD Display, plus a larger battery to power the Ivy Bridges processor contained therein In addition;, Microsoft demoed a pen input and e-ink option that looked very impressive and like the covers could be stowed magnetically to the Surface Pro. The ports and Vapor Mg case are the same but your storage options are increased to 64 and 128 GB.
At this point you are saying to yourself, “the price man, the PRICE!” Glad you asked. We do know this; the Surface will be priced “competitively with tablets” and will be available when Windows 8 RT ships. The Pro will ship about three months later and will be, all together now; “priced competitively with ultrabooks”. Same for the Touch or Type Covers and the pen option for the Pro. Another point of concern was that at the demos apparently no one was actually allowed to use the keyboards. The specs are also silent as to Bluetooth and audio out options.
Ballmer was interviewed by the Verge at the event and was quoted as saying that ” the tablets were designed to “prime the pump” for the coming release of Windows 8. In the same interview, Ballmer allowed that Microsoft’s hardware partners were given the early word, but nothing was mentioned about how they took the news. It is doubtful that the hardware makers are overly pleased that Microsoft has made such a blatant challenge for them to stand and deliver better hardware.
The pricing and availability is going to tell the tale here. For the Windows RT tablet; it pretty much has to be at ore preferably less than the third-gen iPad 32 GB at $599 USD or $699.00 USD for the 64 GB model. While Microsft could argure premimum features such as the SD slot and USB port that the iPad lacks, the per unit cost is fairly low and are not going to do more than perhaps tip a decision between Surface and the iPad. Pricing for the Touch and Type Covers are a bit harder to figure as it gives you both a cover and a keyboard. Ideally it should not bbe over $75 to $100 USD. If the Surface RT does not meet those points, its not going to sell, no matter how neat it looks.
The Surface Pro competitor is not the tablet market, its the MacBook Air. Again, with storage options of 64 GB and 128 GB the comparison point is the 11 inch Air and for the same storage options the Air is priced at $999 and $1099 respectively. Here, the Surface Pro can shine as a competitor to the Air if the total price including a Type Case can comes in under the Air. It is more than a little disturbing that Microsoft has been so coy about pricing and availability. It is clear that the announcement was tactical, exactly a week after the WWDC 2012 keynote and just before Google IO when it is widely believed that Google will announce its Android tablet entry. In watching the live blogs, I was left with an uncomfortable feeling that this was like the Palm Pre reveal a few years back. Amazing technology and features that were eitehr not ready or cost too much to be marketable.
Time will tell.