Microsoft’s right call on tablets
There hasn’t been this much fuss about tablets since Moses walked up a mountainside. On Monday Microsoft took the wraps off Surface, a product line it hopes will help it win market share from Apple’s iPad, which remains king of the tablets. If it’s priced right, a tablet war is in the offing. By Duncan McLeod.
It had all the hallmarks of an Apple keynote. No one knew exactly what Microsoft would be announcing in Los Angeles, but the excitement among gadget junkies about a potentially game-changing product from the US software giant was palpable.
What Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced in the end was a new line of tablets called Surface that will run the upcoming Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT operating systems. Ballmer was drawing a line in the sand in the company’s protracted war with Apple. The subtext was clear: Microsoft has had enough of the iPad’s dominance and is prepared to do something it hasn’t done before — build its own hardware running Windows, potentially risking the ire of its partners in the PC industry — in an effort to eat into Apple’s market share.
On paper, the new Surface tablets look promising. The entry-level version, which uses Arm-based processors, runs Windows RT, which is Microsoft’s tablet-specific operating system powered only by Microsoft’s new interactive, tile-driven Metro interface. It won’t run legacy Windows apps, only those developed specifically for Metro, meaning it’s aimed directly at the iPad.
The second, more powerful — and possibly more interesting — Surface tablet is more like a traditional PC. It will be powered by Windows 8 Pro, offering both the traditional Windows desktop and Metro interface, and will be able to run applications designed for Windows 7 and earlier versions of the operating system. If it’s priced correctly, the tablet could prove popular in businesses.
Surface for Windows RT weighs 676g, marginally heavier than the 660g third-generation iPad, and has a 720p resolution display. It has 32GB or 64GB of storage, a microSD port, a USB 2.0 port and a 31,5Wh battery. The Pro version weighs noticeably more at 903g, but comes with a more powerful Intel Core i5 chip, 1 080p screen, a 42Wh battery (similar to the new iPad), a speedier USB 3.0 port, up to 128GB of built-in storage and Mini DisplayPort for hooking the tablet up to a monitor or TV.
Both tablets come with a magnetic cover that integrates keyboard and trackpad and both feature Wi-Fi for Internet access. It’s not yet clear if the devices will support mobile broadband networks.
The move is a brave one for Microsoft, which risks alienating its hardware partners, such as Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. The software maker is promising these “original equipment manufacturers” cost and feature parity on both Windows 8 and Windows RT and Ballmer says the firms were briefed about its plans ahead of Monday night’s announcement.
Still, outside PC peripherals and the Xbox gaming console, Microsoft’s ventures into the hardware market haven’t exactly flourished. Its last big attempt to tackle Apple head-on at its own game — by developing the Zune MP3 player to take on the iPod — failed. It’s tempting to suggest it’s again coming to the market too late, taking on a product in the iPad that has established its dominance. But that’s the wrong call. Tablets are not yet ubiquitous and business customers are more likely to embrace Windows-powered tablets simply because they’ll play nicely with their IT systems and allow more granular control.
And with Microsoft pushing Metro across all its consumer-facing products it’s building a powerful proposition that plays to its strengths in enterprise IT. If it prices the Surface tablets right, then Apple has a fight on its hands. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media