Is the new Microsoft tablet a winner? Possibly. There’s still a lot that’s not known about it.
On the one hand, Microsoft seems to be presenting something very different from Apple: a full-fledged PC in tablet form. Apple comes close with the Macbook Air, but that is clearly more in the netbook/notebook side. Microsoft’s new “Surface” tablets are definitely on the tablet side.
This could be good, or it could be bad. Microsoft has always, from the very beginning, pushed tablets as regular computers, failing each time because the technology was never good enough to produce a tablet computer. Apple won that game by first waiting for minimally usable technology to evolve before presenting a product, and then presenting it for what it was best suited for instead of staying trapped in the personal-computer paradigm. Companies other than Microsoft made the same mistake with netbooks, and Apple showed them up by waiting until they could make the Macbook Air.
This time, however, Microsoft could come up a winner: the technology may be more than strong enough to support a full-fledged PC in tablet form. If it is, then Apple could be in some trouble, as it has not yet merged its mobile and laptop environments quite enough to produce a Mac-like tablet–a tablet which fully supplants a laptop computer.
On the other hand, Apple may know what it’s doing. Despite some people desperately trying to use the iPad as if it were a laptop, most people are more than satisfied with it being a handheld media device. So the question is, will the tablet form work for a full-fledged PC? It might, but we just don’t know yet. Microsoft strictly limited hands-on access to the device, allowing reviewers only a minute or two with a device, and only the lower-end “RT” model. There were no hands-on demos of the keyboard.
This might be because some of the hardware is not actually ready. Remember when Microsoft previewed the Windows Series 7 Phone? Their “hands-on” presentation was to have trained users walk around and show visitors how it was used–and it was a complete disaster. The live-use demos were atrocious.
Which leads to other caveats. Microsoft is not releasing any information on pricing. Why not? Will Microsoft try to pit this against the iPad, taking only minimal profits? Or will it try to match the Surface against the Macbook Air? I can only imagine that the lighter model will be priced low, and the “Pro” model will be in the thousand-dollar range at the high end.
What Microsoft seems to be doing is telling everyone the good news before they hear the bad news–carefully controlling all information so that people only know what’s great about the new device, thus generating excitement–and only later, after (Microsoft hopes) people have formed a solid opinion about and desire for the tablet, quietly disclosing the bad news.
Even more suspicious is that there was no information, not even a hint as far as I could tell, of a release date. Microsoft is famed for introducing fantastic-looking stuff and then not actually releasing it for a long time. When Apple gives a sneak peek, they always give a time frame, even if just a quarter. As far as I can tell, Microsoft has not even given a year yet, though 2013 is a safe bet.
There is the usual Microsoft fan base (and/or the Apple Hating crowd) which more or less automatically proclaims anything Microsoft releases as the best thing since sliced bread; this has to be taken into account when reading what people are saying. The lack of data really makes it impossible to be certain about this product, meaning that anyone who currently claims it will be a hit or a dud is whistling in the dark, at best.
I would normally be tempted to say that Microsoft initially releases a piece of crap but then improves on it, evolves it, and eventually has a solid product. However, the Zune kind of belied that; Microsoft no longer makes a music player. It could be said, however, that the DNA from Zune lives on, in Windows Phone 7 (still not doing well with an embarrassing 4% 20 months after release), Metro, and now this tablet.
One telling point is that this is not the first PC-ish tablet to challenge the iPad. Tablets have come out with laptop CPUs, laptop amounts of RAM, USB ports, sexy designs, nice peripherals, etc. None have made a dent in the iPad. This can’t just be another full-featured tablet, it has to have something that will jolt people and make them want it, even need it.
Again, this could be an iPad killer. Given Microsoft’s track record, however, that’s not the safest bet in the world. Microsoft has gotten great hype upon announcing this kind of thing (originally, the Series 7 Phone was touted as the best thing since sliced bread even as it fell apart in the hands-on demos), only to have the most serious problems–that of the whole user experience–to sink the project upon release.
None of this is to say that Microsoft can’t make anything successful in hardware–the Xbox is successful, for example–but it would be wisest to refrain from any conclusions at all until people get a chance to take it home for a week, or even just play with a for-market version for an hour, unsupervised or otherwise constrained by Microsoft PR hacks.