Techman: Analyzing Microsoft's Surface

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We know that Microsoft is bringing out a tablet. We know it will be called Surface. We know it will run the new Windows 8 operating system.

But Microsoft has revealed precious little else about it.

However, we can answer some questions by looking at what Microsoft did say and deducing from there.

Q: Will the Surface tablet be a consumer product or a business one?

A: Both. The Surface will come in two versions. Surface for Windows RT will run the tablet-optimized Windows 8 RT operating systems on battery-saving ARM chips, the small chips that power the iPad. It will come out around the time of Windows 8, in the fall. Surface for Windows 8 Pro will run the full version of Windows 8 on more powerful Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processors. It will come out three months after the consumer version, the beginning of 2013.

Q: How much will I have to shell out?

A: No exact price has been announced, but Microsoft said the consumer model will be competitive with similar ARM-based tablets. The most popular of those is the iPad, so let's guess the consumer model will start at about $500. The business version will be priced competitively with Ultrabooks, the thin laptops, which usually cost around $1,000.

Q: What will Surface have that the iPad doesn't.?

A: Of course it will have Windows 8, Microsoft's new touch-based, mobile-centric operating system. Surface's cover will do Apple's Smart Cover one better. There are actually two covers that attach magnetically. One, called the Touch Cover, has chiclet-type keys that Microsoft says are gesture-sensitive, allowing a swiping motion that makes typing very fast. The other, the Type Cover, has keys with a laptop-type keyboard. The case also has a built-in stand. The business model will have the ability to use a pen or stylus.

Q: How does Surface compare to iPad in connectivity?

A: No comparison here because iPad has only a proprietary connector and a headphone jack. Surface has a microSD slot, a USB 2.0 port (3.0 on the business model) and HDMI output. The business model also has a Mini DisplayPort instead of a video out. That will allow it to drive all sorts of monitors.

Bloomberg is reporting that initially the tablet will only be available as Wi-Fi, no cell phone data connection.

Q: How much storage?

A: The consumer model will have 32 GB and 64 GB models, and the business model will come in 64 GB and 128 GB.

Q: What's with the name?

A: If the name sounds familiar, it is because Microsoft already had a product named Surface. However there is little danger of confusing the two. Now named PixelSense, it debuted in 2007 as a coffee-tabled sized touch-screen device used mostly in the retail and hospitality industries. The name Surface might not appeal to you, but they could have called it Zunetab.

Q: Microsoft still will want other manufacturers to build tablets using Windows 8. Won't having their own tablet be competing with them?

A: Yes. It remains to be seen how it will play out. But it seems clear that Microsoft has changed strategies. With its Windows Phone 7 software, it took on a hardware partner in Nokia. With the tablet, it is following the Apple model by making both the hardware and the software in-house.

Q: Doesn't Microsoft have a spotty history in tablets?

A: Microsoft has never produced a tablet device, but it has had several iterations of software aimed at such devices. In 1991, it released Windows for Pen Computing, an add-on to Windows 3.1 that let the operating system accept input from a stylus. Several devices used Microsoft's software and are recognizable as the ancestors of today's tablets. In 2002, Windows for XP Tablet PC Edition was introduced. Neither of these software ideas caught on. Microsoft had some success with its Pocket PC operating system, which ran in devices like the Compaq iPAQ line. But when Pocket PC moved over to smartphones and was renamed Windows Mobile, it could not compete with BlackBerry and later Apple.

Q: So is Surface a serious challenger to the iPad?

A: In the business arena it could be. Business technology people know how to manage Microsoft networks and probably would prefer integrating Microsoft products to Apple ones.

In the consumer market, Android tablets and even the Kindle Fire -- which many saw as an iPad killer -- have been left in Apple's dust. One reason is because of the vast number of apps and aftermarket products for the iPad. If Microsoft can use its considerable muscle to generate this kind of environment for Surface, it has a shot.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch and listen to TechTalk at post-gazette.com/multimedia. First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 AM


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