Microsoft‘s big announcement is out- the long-awaited Windows 8 tablets have been teased, and the big surprise is that Microsoft is getting into the hardware manufacturing game in an attempt to spur innovation among third party hardware manufacturers and go head to head with Apple. For those of you that haven’t been inundated with the reports, the new Microsoft manufactured devices (dubbed the Surface) will come in two flavors: a unit sporting an ARM processor that will run a version of Windows 8 that will not run software compatible with other systems like desktops, and an X86 processor version running the full Windows 8 operating system.
Actual technicals specifications are somewhat thin. Both will have a magnesium alloy body and a 10.6 inch Gorilla Glass display (surprisingly larger than the iPad‘s 9.7 inch display). Unlike the iPad, the Microsoft tablets will have several ports: USB 2, HDMI, and microSD. Both models are heavier than the iPad (although the ARM version is only fractionally so). The form factor also deviates from the iPad’s as necessitated by the extra input ports; where the iPad is sleek and rounded the Surface tablets are more squared off with flat sides. Two clever and stylish covers have been featured as well; not only do they protect the unit they double as a keyboard and trackpad when opened. One version relies on an accelerometer and touch sensor to replicate a keyboard, the other has a more traditional construction (although pundits haven’t been allowed to use either yet). The Windows 8 Metro interface will immediately differentiate these tablets from competitors when powered up- while I’m very pessimistic of the Metro interface on traditional laptops and desktops, I expect it to shine on tablets (as it does on the latest generation of Windows phone).
With suggestions that the x86 tablet will be priced similarly to ultraportables I think Microsoft may be trying to create a new subcategory of device, between the tablet and ultraportable. The device’s keyboard has been stated to have a trackpad, a strange choice of input for a class of devices that focuses on touch screens as the primary source of interaction. While it’s pure speculation, it seems as though the x86 version is an attempt to make the best of both worlds- light, slim, set apart from other devices by the addition of touchscreen capability and being able to remove the keyboard but still offering the same full operating system of ultraportables instead of a pared down mobile OS.
The ARM version of the Surface tablet is the true tablet competitor. The ARM processor is the same as used by some Android tablets, and the version of Windows 8 it sports shares only the Metro interface with its more powerful sibling. The loss of functionality is a trade off for lower cost, better battery life and less heat byproduct, but there is bound to be some confusion among the Windows faithful as to why they can’t run their software on a Windows device. Other than the Metro interface there’s not a great deal to differentiate the ARM processor version of Microsoft’s tablet from its competitors.
So is Apple justifiably nervous? It’s too early to say if this new lineup is a legitimate competitor to the iPad; questions still abound over multiple factors: the battery life isn’t even hinted at, there’s a legitimate concern over how much heat the devices will generate (tablets have favored low powered mobile processors for both battery life and lower heat generation), confusion over what to expect from the Win8 app library (as the two devices aren’t fully software compatible), and most importantly the PRICE. Prices were hinted at, but to be truly competitive the devices must at least meet their primary competitor. Both versions of the new tablet have their own hurdles; the ARM version may operate as other tablets but it won’t meet the needs of those that have been waiting for a tablet running Windows, and the x86 may be short on battery life and RAM (most full OS systems need four gigabytes of RAM, but tablets to date have had a maximum of one).
Still, the limited exposure pundits have been allowed has resulted in some positive buzz. Windows 8 is at home on tablets, and Microsoft has the benefit of building off of Apple and Google’s experience in the tablet market. Microsoft has been building toward this release for some time, and after their failure with the Zune and Courier tablet I’d imagine they have put a great deal more focus on releasing a competitive product. It’s foolish to label the Surface tablet (or any of its third party Windows 8 tablet brethren) as iPad killers; the iPad effectively created the device genre and has a huge user base that is still expanding. That being said, there are still a large number of users that simply don’t like the Apple lineup and would flock to a viable competitor, especially if that competitor offered greater compatibility with an already-established Windows user base.
Going into the hardware market has risks; there is bound to be discontent among Microsoft’s manufacturing partners. To date Microsoft has made their place in the market as a software company, leaving the hardware form factor to its resellers. Those retailers likely don’t appreciate the extra competition from Microsoft as most resellers have dealt with raz0r-thin profits in an increasingly competitive market. While Microsoft has ventured into (successful) hardware manufacture before with the XBox, the Surface tablets blaze new ground as they will be listed alongside other tablets running the same operating system. Microsoft controlling both the software and hardware of a product line threatens to shunt them into the same ‘closed system’ category of Apple’s iOS, with all aspects of the device controlled by a (hopefully) benevolent dictator. Window’s ‘openness’ is a byproduct of Microsoft’s business strategy of focusing solely on being a software vendor and leaving hardware configuration to its resellers; without those resellers Microsoft is free to pursue the advantages that Apple has created by controlling their entire product line- but at the expense of losing one of the primary factors that advocates have touted.
I’m hoping for good things from Microsoft’s release of Windows 8; it’s been stated ad nauseum competition breed innovation. Without the pressure to innovate the market would become stagnant, and Android has offered only token resistance to the tidal wave of iOS devices. While I have no desire to leave the warm, comforting embrace of the Apple-verse, I look forward to what Microsoft is going to bring to the table- and what this will spur Apple to do in answer.