Microsoft to Take On the iPad with Surface Tablet

In the end, the rumors were half right: Microsoft announced not one but two tablets that it will sell as competition to the Apple iPad. The Surface-branded tablets will be based on Windows 8 and Windows RT, and will feature an integrated keyboard cover and kickstand.

“We want to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovations,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Surface announcement, an event steeped in mystery and hype.

The Microsoft Surface tablet looks interesting. It comes in two variants: a Windows RT version running on an ARM platform that weighs 1.6 pounds, and a Windows 8 version that runs on Intel Core-based hardware and weighs 2 pounds and is much thicker. Both feature a 10.6" widescreen display, but then the specs diverge in odd ways. The Windows RT-based tablet comes with Microsoft Office 2013 RT and features microSD, USB 2.0, and Micro HD video connectors. The Windows 8-based version lacks Office but includes microSDXC, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort video connectors.

The Windows RT-based Surface will ship in 32GB and 64GB versions, whereas the Intel device will come in 64GB and 128GB versions.

Both feature a “VaporMg” (which Microsoft insists is pronounced “vapor mag”) case and stand, which might be the new Surface tablet’s most interesting feature. Similar in look to Apple’s Smart Case for the iPad, the VaporMg is in fact much smarter, offering device protection when closed and a built-in, low-profile hardware keyboard that’s available when the case opens. A kickstand in the back keeps the tablet propped up at a good angle for typing and screen viewing. The case is available in a variety of colors, many vibrant and bright.

The Windows RT version of the Surface tablet will ship at the same time as Windows 8 and Windows RT, expected in October. But the Windows 8 version—which utilizes Windows 8 Pro—won’t ship until 90 days later. Why? Who can say?

This is interesting news, but it’s unclear whether Microsoft’s coming tablets offer any serious differentiation from the many Windows 8 and RT tablets its partners will be selling in the months ahead. But one thing is clear: This major strategy shift pits Microsoft in competition against these partners as well as foes such as Apple and Google. No technology platform maker has ever been successful doing this.

Microsoft, too, has seen precious little success with standalone devices. Aside from the Xbox 360, all of Microsoft’s hardware initiatives have been abject failures, the most obvious and recent example being the Zune platform. The company’s Zune HD, in particular, was well designed and beautiful to look at, but consumers stayed away in droves. And even the Xbox 360, loved as it is, was horribly designed: Repairs to the original console cost Microsoft over $1 billion.

Of course, the past isn’t always an indicator of the future, and Microsoft should be applauded for making many big bets with Windows 8. The Surface tablet is just the latest of these bets. And it’s certainly pretty to look at.

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