Microsoft fans have a lot to be excited about. By this year’s holiday season, Microsoft will unveil a flurry of exciting new products which will include Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and an unexpected new surprise: Microsoft’s own tablet dubbed the Surface.
Taking its queue from Apple’s incredible success with the iPad, Microsoft has decided that the best way to showcase its flagship Windows 8 product is by admitting that Apple’s strategy of building both the hardware and software is the way to go. That must undoubtedly upset some of Microsoft’s hardware partners, but it has allowed Microsoft to produce a tablet that’s unlike any other. Except for the same 10″ form factor, multi-touch screen, weight, battery life and storage capacity that can be expected in virtually all other tablets that have come since the iPad, the Surface shares no other similarities.
Two ways that Microsoft is differentiating the Surface is by providing a “Kickstand” allowing the tablet to sit up in a landscape configuration (eliminating the need for an actual kickstand for your bicycle) and by including a super thin multi-touch keyboard that includes a trackpad (although it’s not 100% clear that the keyboard will be included). The iPad-like smart cover which also acts as a touch keyboard is smart enough to sense when the user’s fingers are at rest on the keys and it detects additional pressure of keystrokes when the user intends to type.
Glitches at the Product Launch
Following Apple’s formula of launching new products with a press invite the week before, Microsoft sent out a press invite last week for a mysterious and big product announcement for Monday June 18th at 3:30pm Pacific time. Unlike Apple, however, the Microsoft event got underway nearly 45 minutes late and had a technical snafu right out of the gate with a malfunctioning Surface device.
Steven Sinofsky, President of Microsoft’s Windows division who took the stage to talk about the Surface highlighted a number of cool new features of the device, including the kickstand and the cool new vents running on the side of the tablet to keep things cool. Two things he did not mention is a release date or pricing other than to say it will be around the launch of Windows 8 (which itself also doesn’t have a release date) and that pricing will be inline with other comparable tablets.
Microsoft had quite a few Surface tablets on display during the press event, however none of the reporters were allowed to get near one or actually use one hands-on. They were allowed to photograph them from afar.
To make matters worse, Microsoft’s new web site for the Surface is also sparse on information. The available spec sheet makes no mention of CPU specs, screen resolution, expected battery life, availability or pricing, making it nearly impossible to truly evaluate the Surface vs. any of its competitors. They do, however, have this promotional video:
Destined to Follow Zune?
While this is hardly the first time Microsoft has built its own hardware (think MS Mouse, Keyboard, XBox and Zune), this is only the second time it has departed from its partner strategy. The first time it did so was with the Microsoft Zune. That product line caused Microsoft’s Media Player hardware partners to abandon Microsoft and eventually the Zune itself was a spectacular failure and embarrassment for Microsoft. Eventually Microsoft shut down the Zune.
This time around, Microsoft faces similar challenges to its Zune strategy. Any Microsoft tablet partner has to be rethinking their strategy right about now and quite possibly opting instead for the Android platform. After all, why would a Microsoft Tablet partner willingly pay Microsoft for an operating system when they are going to compete in the same market, especially when they can get the Android operating system for free?
It’s unclear how committed Microsoft is to this strategy. In his opening remarks, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer sent mixed signals. At first, he said “we believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when every aspect of the experience, hardware and software, are considered together.” That statement was very Apple-like and implied that Microsoft is committed to making its own hardware for the best end-user experience. Unfortunately, a few breaths later, Balmer also said “of course the ultimate landing point of the PC experience is through our OEMs.”
The success of the Surface remains to be seen. I’m just really impressed how they fit a coffee-table sized machine into a 10″ tablet.