After a hastily announced press conference, Microsoft has announced something that a lot of people have been expecting for years; the re-announcement of the tablet computer. Bill Gates first did this back in 2001 with "strong support" from HP and other vendors, but the tablet-based version of Windows XP never really caught on. Microsoft tried it again a few years later with the Courier ... but it was scrapped despite all the love the tech press showered on it. So third time's the charm, right?
At first I was confused as to why Microsoft would use the term Surface for their new line of tablet computers. Would this not dilute the Windows Surface brand that currently exists for really large touch screens? The answer is clearly no as Microsoft is rolling out this name to a number of their products. There is now Windows Surface, XBox Surface, and this new Windows Surface Tablet. Surface is the buzzword that Microsoft is going to push for the next 8 to 18 months1 for all things involving touch or Kinect-like interaction.
So, what's the Windows Surface Tablet like? Is it like an iPad? Is it like an Android Tablet? Something altogether different?
Judging from all the press information, this is clearly a no compromise device. It's a portable device that aspires to be as loved as Apple's, as customizable as an Android, and as versatile as a netbook. If there's one thing history has shown time and again is that a jack of all trades is typically a master of none. Microsoft is very late to this resurgence in tablet interest, which means it needs to bring something to the table that regular people are going to be clamoring over each other for. So what will it be? Price? Availability? Battery life?
Who's to say, as these three questions all remain unanswered2.
So, using the standard WH-question words to determine this product's role in the market place, let's review the Windows Surface Tablet:
Where can we buy one of these? Nowhere at the moment, and only in the US for the first few months after its release.
What is the main advantage this tablet has over the competition? It can run a stripped down version of Microsoft Office.
When are these tablets expected to go on sale? Three months after Windows 8 is released, which would put it somewhere around November; just in time for the new New iPad.
Who is the target audience for this product? Corporate slaves who are bound to the devices their IT departments hand out to them, and maybe trendy people who want to root for the 800-pound-gorilla-turned-flailing-underdog without making the switch to Linux.
Why would somebody want this instead of an iPad, Galaxy Tab, Galaxy Note or other phablet34? People who spend the majority of their day in Word or PowerPoint will appreciate this quite a bit. As for Excel, people who spend most of their time with spreadsheets are most likely working with datasets far too large to be feasible for any tablet computer at this time.
How much will this tablet cost? Your guess is as good as mine. From the vague numbers, I will venture a guess at somewhere between $799.95 USD5 and $1,299 for the "pro" version.
How long will the battery last? The RT version may get between five and seven hours if it's truly an ARM-powered device. The Pro tablet will not get much more than 3 hours on a good day.
How well does it support languages other than English? If Windows Surface for Tablets is like every other version of Windows, it will not render anything that does not use standard ASCII very well at all. People who wish to install Japanese software will be treated to unreadable screens and useless data entry forms.
As a person who was not too long ago a staunch supporter of Microsoft products, I must say that I don't understand why the company is releasing their own tablet. This is not going to sit well with the competition. Are these tablets supposed to act like the Nexus line of Android devices, offering a crapware-free and pure Windows Surface for Tablets experience? If so, then Microsoft will undoubtedly keep the number of produced devices to an absolute minimum to ensure Asus and other vendors aren't infuriated too much by the project.
Like Windows Phone, I will love to play with this in the store and see just how much effort Microsoft made to get their consumer-focused products as smooth and intuitive as possible. That said, I just don't see the tablets catching on. It's not because the tablets won't have as many applications as the iPad, as most people use less than 20. It's not because the Android tablets are (practically) being given away by phone companies in exchange for expensive data plans. It's because Office is not nearly as important as it used to be, and Microsoft's products are typically viewed as being something we use at work and mildly tolerate at home. Who wants to bring more of it home?
But who knows? I've been wrong before. Perhaps I'll be completely wrong about this, too.