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Microsoft ‘Surface’: Industry Watchers Cautiously Optimistic

Software giant Microsoft is getting into the tablet PC market in a big way with the unveiling of the Surface.

Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet at an event in Hollywood Monday afternoon.The Surface is actually two tablets: one running an ARM processor featuring Windows RT, and one with a third-generation Intel Core processor featuring Windows 8 Pro. Surface for Windows RT will release with the general availability of Windows 8 expected later this summer and the Windows 8 Pro model will be available about three months later. Both will be sold in the Microsoft Store locations in the U.S. and available through select online Microsoft Stores. No pricing information just yet.

Both Surface tablets feature a 10.6-inch HD screen (slightly larger than the iPad’s). The Windows RT version weighs 1.5 pounds; is 9.3 mm thick; and is available with a 32GB or 64GB hard drive. The Windows 8 Surface is the heavy-hitter: It has a USB 3.0 port; weighs 2 pounds; is 13.5 mm thick; and is available in a 128 GB version. Both Surfaces have a pair of cameras and a handy “kickstand,” if you will, that keeps the screen propped up like a picture frame.

At least one pair of industry watchers says the Surface as with all other new tablet PCs will be compared to Apple’s iPad.

“While, in theory, the software underpinning Surface Windows 8, delivers all the benefits of both the tablet-optimized environment and the classic desktop approach, in reality, the versions available to try at the moment are a mishmash of the two worlds and may leave consumers and business users confused,” said Ovum analysts Richard Edwards and Jan Dawson. “The device itself looks compelling, but it will be apps and the overall user experience that will ultimately determine the success of the device.”

Microsoft is said to be readying a version of its Office suite for tablet users, but the company hasn’t made any formal announcements. That could be a differentiator in the enterprise market.

“Tablets have been finding their way into the enterprise, despite being mainly classed as consumption rather than productivity devices, and it will be interesting to see if a Microsoft tablet changes that perception,” said David McQueen, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. “If it has the requisite Windows office applications available from launch across both device types and suitable peripherals to make input easier at a price point that is competitive, then I do see it displacing notebooks and netbooks in the office.”

Ronan de Renesse, principal analyst at Analysys Mason, is more bullish on the Surface, calling it “the best Windows-based mobile product attempt so far and will sell as long as it delivers its promises and is priced correctly.” The analyst wonders if Microsoft will decide to stop licensing Windows on tablets if the Surface becomes a hit.

That’s a good question, with a number of Windows-compatible tablets scheduled for release later this year and early next. But the first question to be answered is how competitive the Surface can be with the iPad, which, despite competition from Android, actually increased its market share in the last quarter. If the answer is “not competitive,” then the rest of this talk is moot.

“Microsoft needs to make sure it hits the market running as it is essential the tablet is properly marketed and shows its full potential if it has any hope of displacing Apples iPad in certain segments,” said Informa’s McQueen.


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