At Long Last - The Surface: An Actually Excellent and Totally New Set of Microsoft Tablets

By Tony Rizzo, Editor in Chief — June 19, 2012

Is it possible that Microsoft has finally found a way to get its groove back? On Monday June 18, 2012 the company pulled together a media event cloaked in relative secrecy - and one that was not only suspiciously close to Apple's WWDC that took place last week, but one that somehow had the air of rushing to urgently get somewhere at a minute's notice. Some of us suspect that the "surprise" location was more the result of not necessarily having a location in hand when the invites went out late last week. Be that as it may, today it doesn't matter.
 
Microsoft managed to pull together the media event and managed to leave the several people that we spoke to who attended the event (Mobile Enterprise did not attend) with a rather strong feeling that Microsoft had somehow succeeded in delivering a product with a significant "WOW" factor attached to it. It doesn't escape the mind that perhaps Microsoft became a bit worried after seeing what Apple delivered in terms of a super thin MacBook with a retina quality display and the powers that be decided that the company needed to get the word out on the new Surface tablets that it introduced yesterday. 
 
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.
 
Nor is there much in the way of specs at this point. We don't know what the processor really is, we don't know what the screen resolution really is, we don't know what the pricing will be. We know nothing about battery life. Nor do we know if there will be a 3G/4G option, which would provide a component of pricing. 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 so it isn't saying. We know nothing about its camera. We don't know if the keyboard/covers come with the machine or will be a high-priced option. We simply don't know.
 
The Surface is Really Cool
 
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 indisputably cool! Check out the profile below.
 
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. Further, the event yesterday was notable for what it lacked - gone was the hubris that Microsoft typically brings to these shows; gone was the know it all air of knowing something we don't and seeking to educate us about a tablet market that is already over two years old as if Microsoft was only just now inventing it. 
 
Instead there was a certain amount of simply being proud of what they've pulled together - and from what most of us can see based on the images that have been released or provided through a variety of news sources, they are right to feel proud. We won't know for sure, of course, until the Surface models become real, but they appear to have hit the mark on design - industrial design to be sure - and they have added some touches that draw a distinct line between old school laptops and tomorrow's new mobile computing devices.
 
The key highlights are a "VapMg" body (vapor mag, as they put it), which Microsoft referred to as liquid metal - an extremely thin metal in this case that envelops the machine; a 16:9 aspect ratio screen with ClearType display; a unique "kickstand" which the company invested a great deal of effort and dollars on to get "just the right sound" from when it clicks open (something that Nokia used to do when it had a lot of money to burn on new high end designs), and a keyboard/cover that attaches magnetically but also provides electrical connections for the two types of keyboard/covers that will be available. 
 
These elements all work harmoniously as far as design goes (or at least as far a 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. When the first Zune was announced it was also a clearly derivative product - and one that was accompanied by a full dose of the hubris we noted earlier. The Surface is clearly a different beast. 
 
Much Less Rhetoric, Much More Tablet
 
By keeping the rhetoric turned down and letting the Surface do the speaking, so to speak, Microsoft succeeded in letting the Surface emerge as a new and desirable piece of hardware. It's hard to recall the last time a Windows-based piece of hardware did any such thing. 
 
There are two distinct Surface models - the Surface - built around Windows RT (the ARM-based version of Windows 8), and clearly 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. The thing of it is that going on looks alone, both of these versions appear to us to represent what are likely to be highly competitive pieces of hardware. 

 
Microsoft appears to us to be looking to define a new 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. What's not to like? It would require a true curmudgeon to find any fault with these machines or to be "underwhelmed" by them.
 
So, a day after the media event and the announcement, this represents the key takeaway. It is a highly successful new step that Microsoft has taken. And whether or not Microsoft rushed to the stage simply because of Apple's announcements last week ultimately doesn't matter. The Surface is well enough along to have gotten its introduction. 
 
Following this rare Microsoft encomium, the hard work now begins. Our imaginations have been captured - now what's left is to discover if we will ultimately put money on the table. Microsoft still has a lot of answers to provide - but we suspect that we will end up liking what we will ultimately hear. That's where we will place our bets today. 

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