Microsoft's next best hope: the Surface tablet

Microsoft's Surface tablet has the potential to give the iPad a run for its money, but will the software giant's hardware ambitions pay off?

Microsoft’s mystery announcement certainly put the technocrati in a spin this week and a delayed start to the event only served to raise expectations. However, one of the problems with a hype overload is that the payoff is never quite as sweet as expected. So did Microsoft manage to deliver this morning?

Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer and his heir apparent Steve Sinfosky would have been acutely aware of what was at stake as they took to the stage this morning because first impressions really count in the tablet space. It’s doubly crucial when you have an army of tech bloggers and writers chomping onto every bit of what they have to say.

A failure to deliver can be a death sentence for a device because a negative buzz can turn customers away even before it’s in stores. Microsoft has managed to surmount that hurdle quite handily. The debut of Surface has been one of the most exciting product launches in a while and the positivity around the device could come in very handy for Microsoft.

Microsoft has been able to get a few things right as it unveiled the Surface and from the looks of things the tablet is squarely aimed at taking on the iPad.

There is plenty to like about the Surface. The10.6-inch Windows tablet is only 9.3mm thick, weighs 1.5 pounds and is available with either 32 or 64 GB of storage. It sports full size USB 2.0 jacks, a removable battery and has an extra bag of goodies as well.

Microsoft has labelled the device as the first PC with a full magnesium case, called VaporMG Case and has a magnetic cover which is actually more than just a cover. The cover serves as an extremely thin keyboard (at 3mm) and a multi-touch track pad.

All this razzle-dazzle may not mean a lot until the Surface finally hits the shelves but the keyboard is an important accessory. Not only does it add a unique form feature to the device it can also save users money, assuming that the cover will be a lot cheaper than the third party keyboard offerings currently available.

Perhaps the most important thing for Microsoft is that it has managed to put a stamp of individuality on the device. This is important because it can’t possibly beat Apple by releasing another iPad clone. There are far too many of those currently available in the market and most are destined for the rubbish bin.

Its own worst enemy

According to Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, the Surface marks a crucial pivot in Microsoft’s product strategy but there is a big catch. 

“It blends the Xbox first-party hardware model with the Windows ecosystem model. It puts the focus on the consumer rather than the enterprise. And it lets Microsoft compete with vertically-integrated Apple on more even ground,” Epps said in her blog.

However, Epps adds that Microsoft could be its own worst enemy,

“More so than Apple or Google, the worst thing that could happen to Microsoft’s Windows RT tablet is Windows 8 on x86,” she says.

“Selling x86-based tablets in the same retail channels as Windows RT tablets will confuse consumers and sow discontent if consumers buy x86 and think they’re getting something like the iPad.”

According to Epps, Microsoft needs to articulate a compelling strategy for how they will manage consumer expectations in the channel. razzmatazz 

The test ahead 

Given Microsoft’s limited track record in the hardware space it has also managed to display to the market that is has the chops to make a serious attempt at emulating Apple’s unified software/hardware model. In fact, the Surface could well represent Microsoft’s hybrid solution to the Apple problem. The Surface is a tablet but bring the accessories into the mix and you have a ultrabook. The device could have been focused more squarely at the enterprise space, given Microsoft’s dominance in the space, but the initial aim seems to be about dazzling the consumers.

But given the rising prominence of the BYOD trend, the enterprise version, which runs Windows 8 pro, is going to be a robust machine that should allow Microsoft to push a far more compelling and integrated workplace offering to companies.

It is of course too early to say whether the Surface will be a game changer in the tablet space and while the design aspect of the device is pleasing things the proof will be in the testing. There are also question marks about the expected price point for the Surface. So far Microsoft says that the pricing will be comparable to current ARM-tablets and Ultrabook PCs but at what point is the consumer going to say that the Surface is a better bet than an ultrabook?

There is also a big unknown about what Microsoft’s hardware partner will have to say about this move. It’s hard not to imagine that the likes of Samsung Electronics, Hewlett Packard won’t be entirely pleased with where things are headed and this will be an important test for Microsoft. In a way it could also be a handy precursor to what Google may choose to do with Motorola Mobility.

Microsoft’s first steps into serious hardware space are encouraging and quite frankly the company just didn’t have a choice. Of course after hitting a few marks early Ballmer and Sinofsky now have a much bigger task of converting the Surface’s potential, and there’s plenty of that, to real value and market share.