The decades-long rivalry between Microsoft and Apple is more than the story of two competing product lines; it's become a real world test of two overarching business strategies. Microsoft is known for its open-market management, wherein the company's Windows OS and associated software packages are licensed to manufacturers. This approach has been a dominant, nearly-ubiquitous force in personal computing over the past 20 years. However, as personal computing has evolved away from desktop behemoths and into an on-the-go/always-connected era focused on smartphone and tablets (and soon, wearables), it's obvious that Apple's kitchen sink approach to product development is the current frontrunner.
Perhaps that's why it's no surprise that Microsoft opted for a very Apple-ish ghost-and-machine stratagem this week when it unveiled its own branded Surface Windows tablet. Steve Ballmer and company cooked up more than just a new (and long awaited) tablet-friendly incarnation of Windows; they designed a new tablet-laptop hybrid for it to live in.
Microsoft even opted to reveal their newest creation via a very Apple-y, hype-drenched press event in California on Monday. While the company has stated that other manufacturers will be able to license the tablet-tailored version of Windows, this Microsoft-made hardware showcases a radical departure in philosophy for one of the industry's tech giants.
The Surface 2.0 Slate: Microsoft's Tablet-PC Lovechild
First off, if the name "Surface" sounds familiar, that's because it is. Surface was the Microsoft table-top touchscreen device (pictured at right) that has since been re-dubbed "PixelSense." However, the Surface 2.0 is a different device altogether, and from the previews given to press, may have enough bells and whistles (and sirens and foghorns) to be a serious rival to the iPad; it could alter the personal computing space altogether.
On the surface (excuse the pun), the Surface tablet is a regular skinny-minnie slate boasting a 10.6" Gorilla Glass 2 touchscreen display. It also comes with an attached backstand to prop it up as a media screen or to use the front facing camera for Skyping or other teleconferencing. Beyond that, the Surface will come in two distinct versions: the 9.33mm thin "Windows RT" with a 1366x768 resolution ClearType display (which, for the record, is less impressive than the current iPad's 2048x1536 Retina display, but outdoes the Kindle Fire's 1024x600 display) and a 13.5mm "Pro" version that comes with an undisclosed higher resolution, "full HD" ClearType display.
However, Surface attempts to go beyond the basic tablet territory by rectifying the glaring shortcoming of many tablets: inputting data. Tablets are great for media consumption, but can be difficult to use for inputting text because touchscreen tablets are difficult to type on over a long period of time. While there are a number of keyboard accessories you can buy for your tablet, they typically don't fit together in a cozy little package.
Surface heads this problem off from the get-go by coming fitted with a magnetically attached "Touch Cover." It's like Apple's Smart Cover, but the inside boasts a touch sensitive keyboard and multi-touch trackpad, while still maintaining a svelte 3mm thickness. The Touch Cover will come in a variety of colors — if that's important to you — and features a tactile keyboard feel, which will most likely attract many consumers who prefer a physical keyboard feel to that of a touchscreen.
According to Steve Sinofsky, Microsoft's President of Windows and Windows Live, typing with the Touch Cover is "twice as efficient as typing on glass." He further claimed during the tablet's unveiling that each press of a button "measures touch faster than any keyboard you can use today."
What's Below the Surface?
Windows 8 is a radical departure from any previous Windows-branded operating system. The new Windows will still work on your traditional PC, but it has been designed specifically to work just as well with contemporary user interfaces, namely touchscreens. Windows 8 also looks poised to fit in with the company's recently unveiled polygadget SmartGlass software.
The new operating system takes many cues from the innovative (if unfashionably late) Windows 7 OS, with its big, touchable, live tiles. Visuals from yesterday's event did hint at a Windows 8 Store that will presumably allow users to download apps, but no further details were given.
"It was always clear that what our software could do, would require us to push hardware, sometimes where our partners hadn't envisioned," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stated during yesterday's event. "Much like Windows 1 needed the mouse, we wanted to give Windows 8 its own hardware."
The Surface RT will come in 32GB and 64GB incarnations and will be powered by ARM chips. It will also likely feature a tailored version of the Windows 8 OS, to maximize its ARM CPU. Ballmer added that the Surface RT will be "priced to competitive rates with ARM tablets," so we'll guesstimate that this could perhaps place it in the $500-ish iPad range. The RT will weigh around 1.5 lbs. and come equipped with microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, and 2x2 MIMO antennae.
The Surface Pro version will be slightly beefier (a little under 2 lbs.) and come in 64GB and 128GB flavors. The Pro will be powered by a hefty Intel Core i5 quad-core CPU, which Michael Angiulo, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President, says will "rival that of the best ultrabooks that have ever been announced." That's a pretty sweeping, self-assured statement. The Pro is also slated to be equipped with microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video, and 2x2 MIMO antennae. And perhaps more notably, the Pro will boast an attached stylus that can input "digital ink" at 600 dpi, with little lag, which Microsoft claims is akin to writing on paper. (We'll see about that one.) The Pro is also expected to be competitively priced with other ultrabooks on the market, so we anticipate around $1,000.
A lot about the Microsoft Surface remains a mystery: There's no official word on its exact price or availability (the RT is expected to be released with Windows 8 sometime in the fall; the Pro is set to be released three months later). However, if Microsoft can release Surface at a comparative price and the features work as well as the company claims they do, the Surface may be, if not a game changer, then at least a major player in the tablet and/or ultrabook market.
Microsoft has spent much of the past decade playing catch up, and has encountered mixed results. The company boasts notable successes (the Xbox competing with the PlayStation; Kinect vs. the Wii), but Microsoft has also had several misfires. (Remember the Zune?) While there's a lot to look forward to with Surface, time will tell how this next chapter will unfold.