On June 18, 2012 Microsoft announced its spanking new idea for enterprise and consumer hardware - its new Surface tablets. Some people think Microsoft may have gone crazy, and that in delivering a tablet that for all practical purposes looks like it may end up competing with the company's core group hardware partners it is likely to damage its Windows ecosystem. Mobile Enterprise is of the opinion that Microsoft is indeed crazy - crazy like a fox in the henhouse.
The new Surface tablets are toys (in both the "fun" and enterprise sense of the word) that will deliver a powerful Windows 8 message that running Windows is once again going to be cool. It's Start Me Up time all over again. We believe that Microsoft has finally found the way to get its groove back.
Microsoft had somehow succeeded in delivering a mobile product with a significant "WOW" factor attached to it. It has a handsome look to it, it clearly offers an entirely new take on what a tablet cover should do (well, perhaps Logitech may quibble with that, but coming from Microsoft it makes a significant industry difference), and it sports a new kickstand - an obvious feature - but name us a tablet that has one.
We should make clear here that "Surface" in no way refers to what Microsoft used to call its table-based touch technology that it has long been working on with Samsung - that technology has been renamed PixelSense. The use of the Surface name does not in any way indicate that there is PixelSense technology at play here - there isn't.
There really isn't much in the way of specs at this point. We don't know what the processors really are, we don't know what the screen resolution really is, we don't know what the pricing will be - nor do we know if there will be a 3G/4G option, which would provide a component of pricing. We know nothing about battery life. At this point it appears that 3G/4G capability may very well be baked into the new tablets but Microsoft likely doesn't have any carrier agreements in hand. We know nothing about its camera. We simply don't know.
The Surface is Really Cool
Yes, there are a lot of "ifs" associated with the new tablets, and at this point in time there is no reason to think of them as anything other than late stage prototypes. Regardless…they are cool!
Is there anything else to really say about them at this point? It's clear that unlike most of the early Windows Phone 7 designs that Microsoft left to third party developers to create, or even the first Nokia hardware (the Lumia series) to be delivered, that this this time around Microsoft actually invested its own heart and soul into developing the Surface. The inspiration for the overall design, the kickstand and especially the cover/keyboard looks to be something that Microsoft has given a great deal of thought to. It is absolutely not derivative of any competitors - it is clean, feels entirely new, and drives towards a new vision for hardware - especially in for the enterprise.
The company has clearly hit the mark on design - industrial design to be sure - and they have added touches that draw a distinct line between old school laptops and tomorrow's new mobile computing devices. Rather than Microsoft delivering a product that is going to compete with its ecosystem of vendors, it has instead delivered a product that will deliver a great wakeup call to those partners - the new Surface design literally screams "Look at me" and this is something new for any Windows-based machine. The hardware vendors have long had their chance to deliver here - and have constantly failed to do so. For over a decade.
As Steve Ballmer made exceedingly clear at Microsoft's annual worldwide partner conference, Microsoft's aim isn't to compete (although to some extent they will as the Surface tablets will clearly dominate Microsoft's retail stores) but rather to find ways to inspire its vendor partners. The hardware vendors need the inspiration. It is fair to say that to a large degree "old school Windows" had a lot to do with it, but those days are over. Microsoft's hardware partners will have to truly innovate going forward or they will simply fail. This is one time no one can blame Ballmer for doing something wrong on a new product announcement - he has it right: innovate or get out of the way.
The key highlights are a "VapMg" body (vapor magnesium), which Microsoft refers to as liquid metal - an extremely thin metal in this case that envelops the machine; there is a significantly sized 10.6 inch, 16:9 aspect ratio screen with ClearType display; the unique "kickstand" which the company invested a great deal of effort on to get "just the right sound" (something that Nokia used to do when it had a lot of money to burn on new high end designs), and the keyboard/cover that attaches magnetically but also provides electrical connections for the two types of keyboards that will be available.
These elements all work harmoniously as far as design goes (or at least as far as the available images strongly suggest). That is the key here. When HP announced its original WebOS tablet, it was a poorly designed and highly derivative tablet. And in truth most tablets are, with the exception of the iPad of course. Microsoft has succeeded in creating something new, but more importantly something that captures the imagination! Something that makes one want to possess it. For example, when the first Zune was announced it was also a clearly derivative product.
Indeed Crazy Like a Fox
By keeping the rhetoric turned down and letting the Surface do the speaking, so to speak, Microsoft has succeeded in letting the Surface emerge as a new and desirable piece of hardware. There are two distinct Surface models. The "Surface" is built around Windows RT (the ARM-based version of Windows 8), and is the consumer version of the two - and the one destined to compete with the current crop of tablets, including the iPad. The "Surface Pro" is built on the full Windows 8 platform and will apparently compete or look to compete with the Ultrabook class of laptops.
In our opinion Microsoft has made the right moves to literally define a new hardware world - one where magnetically connected screen covers functioning as keyboards become standard operating procedure, and the tablet core of the machine the standard piece of enterprise and consumer hardware. This represents the key takeaway.
It is a highly successful new step that Microsoft has taken. Now, following this rare Microsoft encomium, the hard work really begins, and we need to see Microsoft follow through to a logically satisfying conclusion. Our imaginations have been captured - now what's left is to discover if we will ultimately put our money on the table.
We disagree with anyone who thinks Microsoft made a mistake in executing on the Surface. Microsoft has executed extremely well, and the designers and engineers who created it and built it, as well as the executives who had enough imagination, finally, to approve the project - altogether another rare thing for Microsoft - should be proud of themselves. We believe they have collectively managed to set a new height for the proverbial bar.
Sure, Microsoft still has a lot of answers to provide - but we anticipate that Microsoft will not only deliver, but that its hardware vendors will also step up to the plate and bring a new found design freedom to the game. That's where we will place our bets today.