I don’t claim to be psychic, so I’m not embarrassed by my utter failure to predict what Microsoft would announce at its mystery event in Hollywood on Monday (click here to check out photos from the event). I was seduced by the scuttlebutt that the company would unveil a Kindle Fire-like media-consumption tablet with Xbox and Barnes & Noble Nook-related features, running something that might not be Windows 8. It sounded more plausible than other possibilities.
Wrong! Having decided to sell tablets under its own name, Microsoft went for the gusto. Its Surface tablets are nothing less than the hardware equivalent of Windows 8 itself: A radical rethinking of the PC for the post-PC era.
Microsoft isn’t going to let Windows 8 fail because the hardware it runs on isn’t ambitious enough, and it apparently doesn’t trust the major PC manufacturers to do the job. After 31 years of writing software for other companies’ computers, it’s building its own PCs, its own way. Even if Surface doesn’t work out, it’s a moment of enormous significance for the company and the industry.
Here’s the Microsoft event in its entirety, as uploaded to YouTube by The Verge–if you care about this stuff and have 47 minutes to spare, it’s well worth watching:
Judging from the initial response to the LA event, people are dying to learn two bits of information which Microsoft didn’t fully answer: When will Surface be available and how much will it cost? I don’t find those issues all that interesting. The company says that Surface for Windows RT (which runs on an Nvidia Tegra processor) will arrive with Windows 8, which I’m guessing means October of this year or thereabouts. Surface for Windows 8 Pro (a more powerful version which uses an Intel Ivy Bridge processor) is due 90 days later–very late 2012 or early 2013.
As for price, Microsoft says that both versions will be similar to their closest competitors; I don’t think it’s going to undercut anyone, and it’s too smart to price these so high that nobody will buy them. Seems straightforward.
But oh, do I have other questions about Surface. At the event, Microsoft was allowing only the most cursory of examinations of the Windows RT version of the tablet. I lifted and touched it, ran my fingers across the keyboard and tapped at one app. That’s hardly enough to form true hands-on impressions. So mostly, I’ve been running the implications of Microsoft’s bombshell through my brain.
I’ve been asking questions such as these:
1. How’s that keyboard, anyhow? Microsoft’s Touch Cover has a built-in keyboard that’s roomy, but molded out of one piece of plastic, with no travel. It looks like the legendarily awful keyboard on the Atari 400. But Microsoft says that it’s full of advanced technology that makes it a pleasure to type on: It’s pressure-sensitive and understands gestures. One Microsoft employee at the event said that he was almost instantly able to type at the same speed he can on a conventional full-travel keyboard. My fingers remain skeptical until they’ve typed on it for themselves.
Even if the Touch Cover is no comfier than an on-screen keyboard like the one on the iPad, it has one major virtue: It frees up all of the screen real estate for content. And Microsoft will also offer a Type Cover that’s a bit thicker but which has real keys.
2. What’s the deal with the touchpad? Using my iPad with keyboards such as Logitech’s Solar Folio, I’ve found that using a keyboard and touchscreen in tandem works better than I would have guessed, at least on such a small screen. But Microsoft is equipping its keyboard covers with touchpads. I’m not sure if that’s because it thinks that people won’t want to use the touchscreen in conjunction with the keyboard, or whether it just wants to provide options for everybody.
3. Is anyone going to use these without the keyboard? Microsoft devoted a huge amount of the event to discussing the keyboard and emphasizing that it wasn’t an afterthought. It may turn out that Surface feels less like a tablet that you can use as a notebook, and more like a notebook that you can use like a tablet.
4. How well will Windows work on a screen that small? The two flavors of Surface both have 10.6″ screens. That’s roomy for a tablet but cramped for Windows, at least by historical standards. Apps with the Metro interface may work fine, but one of the major selling points of the Windows 8 Pro Surface is its ability to run traditional Windows programs, too; if Office feels unacceptably claustrophobic, Surface won’t be a serious productivity tool.
5. What’s the battery life? I care more about that than I do about price or shipping date. If the ARM variant of Surface can’t run for eight or nine hours on a charge, it’ll greatly diminish its appeal as an iPad alternative.
6. What’s the deal with wireless broadband? Microsoft didn’t mention built in 4G connectivity. I’m not too worried, though: I think there’s a good chance it’ll announce it’s working with AT&T and/or Verizon closer to Surface’s ship date.
7. How are HP and Toshiba and Dell and Acer and Sony feeling right now? Steve Ballmer told AllThingsD’s Ina Fried that the big PC companies knew Microsoft was working on “something…in this space,” which suggests that they didn’t know the level of ambition that Surface represents. As a consumer, I’m tickled that Microsoft is doing this; if I headed a PC company, I’d be vacillating between depression and anger.
8. What will other hardware makers’ Windows 8 machines be like? They’re not just going to produce tablets–they’ll make more conventional laptops and desktops and other sorts of systems. So Microsoft didn’t just render their still-unannounced product lines irrelevant. But it is calling Surface “the ultimate stage for Windows.” And it’s possible that computers from other manufacturers which would have looked perfectly decent if Surface didn’t exist will now come off as clunky and boring.
9. Will Microsoft be happy or sad if other PC companies out-Surface the Surface? When you compete with your own customers, as Microsoft will be doing, the dynamic is weird. The company clearly did everything in its power to make Surface better–or at least far more forward-thinking–than current PCs. But it’s not rooting against other PC makers; every time they sell a computer, Microsoft sells a copy of Windows. If Surface startles the industry into being more inventive in hopes of minimizing its success, it could put more money in Microsoft’s pockets than it’ll ever make from sales of the tablets themselves.
10. Is Microsoft going to keep this up? It’s timing Surface to appear alongside Windows 8 when it arrives, and it presumably wants these computers to help the new operating system get off to a strong start. But if Surface is going to be around for the long haul, Microsoft is going to have to release new version after new version–forever. We don’t yet know how its follow-through will be; one of the things that doomed Zune was that it kept falling further and further behind the iPod.
11. Will it make other sorts of PCs? If Surface sells well, Microsoft might decide to try its hand at more conventional laptops. Or all-in-one desktops. Or types of PCs yet to be invented. Or maybe it’ll avoid all of those form factors in the hopes of not ticking off other PC makers too much.
12. What about that Kindle Fire-type tablet? On Sunday, over at TechCrunch, former TIME.com technology editor Peter Ha reported that his sources were telling him that Microsoft’s Monday announcement involved an entertainment-centric tablet with Nook e-books and Xbox Live games. None of that turned out to be true. But it doesn’t mean that Microsoft might not be interested in putting Windows on such a device–either one it builds itself, or one made by somebody else.