At a press event in Los Angeles Monday afternoon, Microsoft announced an eye-catching new tablet computer but didn't specify what it would cost, when it would go on sale or how long it would run on a charge. What could possibly go wrong with that?
Surface, a duo of Wi-Fi tablet computers with 10.6-in. touchscreens, one running a limited version of the upcoming Windows 8 on mobile-optimized ARM processors and the other the full Win 8 on Intel chips, amounts to Microsoft shredding its Windows playbook. Instead of writing an operating system and hoping that other companies build tasteful computers to run it, Microsoft designed these tablets itself.
Competing against Windows licensees like Acer, Dell and HP represents a heretical move for Microsoft, far more than such earlier ventures into consumer gadgets as its successful Xbox video-game consoles and its abandoned Zune media players. If Microsoft's own stores didn't convince you that the Redmond, Wash., firm isn't content with how its work is presented by partners, Surface closes that case.
The name Surface is one Microsoft formerly used for a touchscreen-kiosk technology it introduced in 2007. The tablet aims somewhere between the iPad and traditional laptops.
Its "Windows RT" version (Microsoft's moniker for the ARM-based version of Windows it announced at CES in 2011) and Windows 8 Pro Surface models will both run apps written for Win 8's Metro interface. And Metro, a windows-less front-end to Windows that owes most of its streamlined looks to Microsoft's elegant Windows Phone 7 software, should suit a tablet's touchscreen well.
The Win 8 Surface tablet will run regular Windows apps too, but they may fit as awkwardly on its small screen as Metro has on a conventional laptop. That tablet will also be heavier and thicker than the RT model: 1.99 lbs. and .53 in. thick, compared to 1.49 lbs. and .37 in. thick for its more svelte sibling.
Surface tablets will also bring some design refinements that haven't shown up on Apple's iPad, such as a built-in kickstand, a full-size USB port that can recharge other devices and a microSD Card slot for easy file transfer. The Win 8 version will add a dual-mode touchscreen that ignores swipes of a finger if you use an included stylus for finer control.
Microsoft also showed off Touch and Type Covers that double as keyboards and could make Surface more of a laptop replacement, but iPad users can already buy that sort of thing.
After all of Microsoft's sometimes-forgotten history with tablet computers (some of Bill Gates's early predictions for the concept sound like the iPad), this company should have a decent shot at getting Surface off the ground. But first it must escape the trap of such doomed tablet ventures as HP's TouchPad by hitting the market at a compelling price.
Microsoft predicts that Surface RT and Win 8 tablet prices will be "competitive" with those for ARM-based tablets and Intel-standard "Ultrabook" laptops. The former aren't on sale yet, while the cheapest Ultrabooks in Microsoft's stores (the only physical outlets that will sell Surfaces) start at $799.
As for delivery dates, expect the RT version to ship "with the general availability of Windows 8" sometime this fall, while the Win 8 Pro model will take another 90 days.
But what about battery life, the most important factor in many mobile devices? We can only guess. The failure of Microsoft to offer even vague promises about that — and its unwillingness to let reporters at its Surface event do much more than paw at the demo hardware — should be early warnings not to get too excited about this concept.
Images via Microsoft PR