By Jennifer LeClaire / Mobile Tech Today. Updated June 20, 2012.
Surface has plenty of common ground with the market-leading iPad, then takes the engineering a step further with a USB port, stylus input and new keyboard and touchpad options. But is Surface an iPad competitor or just a PC alternative?
Despite the hyperfocus on hardware engineering and the software strategy that focuses on Microsoft's own flagship products, is Microsoft's Surface strategy all that different from the winners and losers in the tablet market? Is Microsoft really aiming between Apple's eyes? And, if so, does the Surface offer a whole lot that the iPad doesn't?
We caught up with Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, to get some answers to those questions as analysts from various sectors of the tech industry begin unraveling Microsoft's tablet strategy. He told us, for starters, that Microsoft's Surface strategy isn't especially new or unique in the tablet market.
PC Vendors Repositioning
"The past year has witnessed a great deal of breaking down of traditional PC industry relationships. Consider how many longtime Wintel OEMs and ODMs, including Dell and HP, are actively developing ARM/Android- based tablets and ARM-based servers," King said.
He pointed to Intel's Ultrabook initiative, which he said follows a similar though discreetly different disruptive line of thought -- offering design principles, as well as development assistance, to hardware partners that have mostly floundered in efforts to compete with Apple's MacBook Air.
"Microsoft's Windows 8 reference architectures suggested that the company is taking a far more aggressive position with partners than it has in the past," King said. "Overall, the company's Surface tablets simply seem to be the latest examples of ongoing trends which suggest that PC industry vendors are repositioning themselves for a future which is likely to be significantly different than the past."
Targeting Mighty iPad?
Where is Apple on Microsoft's tablet radar screen? Microsoft is "sort of" targeting Apple, especially with the Windows RT version of the tablet. But King said Microsoft is moreover promoting a two-tier personal computing concept rather than the post-PC era vision.
As King sees it, Microsoft is betting that computing users will fall into two general groups: consumers focused on media and entertainment, and professionals and prosumers that require more fully-featured devices. King said the Surface configurations clearly reflect that view.
Next question: Does Microsoft offer anything the iPad doesn't? King noted that Surface for Windows 8 Pro is a full-blown Intel Core i5-based PC in a tablet form factor that's far more powerful than the iPad. That, he said, should also create opportunities for the Surface for Windows 8 Pro.
So will Surface eat into Apple's tablet market share? That's anybody's guess, but King said the answer won't rest entirely on the qualities of the new Surface tablets.
"In the past few years, Microsoft has shown a disconcerting tendency to cut and run from products whose initial sales and market penetration were not as successful as the company hoped," King said. "In the case of Surface, such behavior would be disastrous, as it would destroy the obviously sizable investment Microsoft has made in its tablet effort, and likely also undermine Windows 8 tablet efforts among its partners."