on Monday unveiled two Windows-based tablets it hopes can grab market share from the iPad. Microsoft is positioning its new Surface tablets as "PCs built to be the ultimate stage for Windows."
Designed and engineered by Microsoft employees, Surface promises advances in industrial design. For example, Surface lets software take center stage by supporting a full-sized USB port and a 16:9 aspect ratio. Surface has edges angled at 22 degrees, which Microsoft said is a natural position for the tablet at rest or in active use. The idea is for the hardware to fade into the background and the software to stand out.
"Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen made a big bet -- a bet on software -- but it was always clear that we had to push hardware in ways that sometimes manufacturers hadn't envisioned," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at Monday's event. "We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects, hardware and software, are working together."
A Luxury Tablet?
Microsoft pointed to Surface design features like the casing, which is created using what's called VaporMG, a magnesium-based combination of material selection and process to mold metal and deposit particles that creates a finish similar to a luxury watch. By leveraging this approach, Microsoft said, Surface is thin and light yet also rigid and strong. The VaporMG approach also makes room for a built-in kickstand that makes it convenient to watch movies or take photos and videos with the Surface.
Using pressure-sensitive technology, Surface's Touch Cover senses keystrokes as gestures. That paves the way for faster touch typing than with an on-screen keyboard. Touch Cover clicks into Surface via a built-in magnetic connector. Microsoft also offers a 5 mm-thin Type Cover that adds raised keys for a more traditional typing feel.
Microsoft will offer two models of Surface: one running an ARM processor and Windows RT, and one with a third-generation Intel Core i5 processor and Windows 8 Pro. Surface for Windows RT will release with the general availability of Windows 8, and the Windows 8 Pro model will be available about 90 days later.
What Will Surface Cost?
We caught up with Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis, to get his views on Microsoft's entry into the hardware side of the tablet market. He told us the hardware is incredibly appealing and the fact that Office comes with it is a major competitive advantage, particularly for consumers who are productivity-oriented.
"It's a full PC. It's running the same operating system that all PCs are going to be running. So the assumption is that eventually there will be apps for this platform just like there are apps for Windows 7," Greengart said. "But you could summarize it this way, although it's glib: At launch, the Surface will have Microsoft Office, and the iPad has 225,000 other things."
Still, the big unknown for Greengart is not apps but pricing. Microsoft has not announced pricing for the Surface, but has merely said that it would be competitive. There was also no word about battery life or market timing. It remains to be seen if Microsoft will push out the tablet in time for the holiday shopping season.