Does Microsoft's Surface tablet launch offer anything new?

Microsoft’s tablet finally surfaced yesterday. I was discussing it with my son and he said the whole thing reminded of the movie The Sixth Sense, which Microsoft playing the Bruce Willis part. They’re walking around, wondering what’s going on, trying to solve people’s problems and don’t realize they’re dead. People’s computing problems are directly attributable to them, not being alive and aware of how the world now works.

So I looked at the press event and the product video, and I’m trying to figure out why people are excited. Ok, yes, there’s another tablet offering out there, and it’s from a company who in theory can go toe-to-toe with Apple in this space, or sell at a loss for a decade if not (see Xbox profits and marketshare).

And it’s a Windows offering for those who’ve been wanting Windows on a tablet. That’s it. That’s the new stuff. The rest are things already out there. NPR has a summary of reviews. And or course there is the obligatory use of the term iPad Killer. I’d actually be careful with that one, it seems a good way to end up with a tablet nobody wants based on past experience. Remember Xoom, Playbook and Touchpad? They were all iPad killers.

John Quain of said:

“Microsoft has always mimicked other technologies, from graphical interfaces to Web browsing to financial software. In some cases, it did improve upon what it copied, but in general the company’s approach worked because it was based on an artificial monopoly. It was important for us as users to work with common files and formats, so Windows continued to dominate and we adopted its browser and related software.”

So let’s look at what we know so far, and what we don’t know.

The thickness and weight are basically an iPad. The screen size is 10.6″ with HD resolution. This is good news if you’re primarily watching videos. Not bad, but not groundbreaking. Bad news if you’re trying to get work done. Note that the larger diagonal with the 16:9 resolution results in a smaller vertical space than the iPad with the 4:3 resolution. And look at the kickstand – this is a horizontal device by nature. Less vertical space is not a great idea if you’re trying to get work done, like email, creating documents, etc.

Screen Dimensions (estimated based on diagonal)
Microsoft Surface 10.6 9.2 5.2
Apple iPad 9.7 7.8 5.8

For screen resolution we don’t have any actual numbers yet, but people are suggesting that the “HD” for the RT version vs the “Full HD” for the Pro version means that it’s 720p (1280×720) and 1080p (1920×1080). iPad 2 resolution is roughly 720p albeit a different aspect ratio at 1024-by-768. The new iPad resolution is much higher at 2048-by-1536.

As to the processors we know that the RT is an ARM and the Pro is an Intel I-5. Both have an unknown number of cores and clock rate. How much RAM is also unknown.

Storage is 32GB through 128GB. Mostly standard fare for tablets, although the 128 currently stands out. It may be matched by others in the not too distant future, but currently a lot of space. Remember though that this is for a full Windows installation, so free space may be less than what you expect.

Price, Performance, Battery life are all things we don’t know. Raw specs, currently unavailable, are going to be essentially meaningless. What will matter is how snappy it is. If apps start fast, switch fast, and are responsive, then it’s a plus. Anything less than that will be DOA.

I’m presuming it’ll be fast enough. Microsoft said the price of the Windows 8 RT Surface will be comparable to the price of other consumer tablets, while the price of the beefier (and heftier) Windows 8 Pro Surface will rival the price of Ultrabooks. Nothing new here, unless you count a $1000+ tablet as something new. Maybe. Overpriced tablets are a dime a dozen. Remember the Motorola Xoom?

The Kickstand is only new in the sense that it’s built-in. Kickstands and a wide variety of other cases are widely available. Will the Kickstand work vertically like many iPad cases? It doesn’t seem to be that way. How will it work when you put it on your lap? It’s a great idea for a table-top, but wouldn’t work the way I frequently use my iPad.

The keyboard again isn’t a new device. There is a huge selection for tablets from cases that convert your machine to basically being a notebook all the way to standard Bluetooth keyboards. Some are good, some are crappy. Logitech for example makes an extremely thin one built into an iPad case. Bundling it is a definite plus, but nothing new. Some will argue that the keyboard is using latest greatest technology, but it’s still just a keyboard and therefore not revolutionary. Kinect based keyboardless input – now that would be a reason to buy!

Some are calling the keyboard the killer secret weapon. It’s funny while there are many keyboard options available for the iPad, how many do you see in the wild? Very few. The point of a tablet is often to leave the stuff behind. Of course, if your OS is not designed for a tablet, but requires keyboard and mouse, then you need the thing.

The cover – wait for it – comes in colors and has magnets! Wow, how 2011! Has anyone at Microsoft seen the old iPad 2 videos? OK, it has an accelerometer too. You can call it evolutionary, but again not revolutionary.

Applications – you can run your windows applications, at least on the Pro. This will undoubtedly be a reason for many to try the Surface out. The question will ultimately be whether the experience is good enough to last. Remember Microsoft built tablets that could run Windows applications over 10 years ago, and pretty much no one wanted them.

A 10 year old capability is nothing new. The tablet touch experience is fundamentally different than a PC. it’s based on UI that doesn’t need keyboards and mice. I’m not sure Microsoft understands that.

And that leaves me with their new marketing video. It reminds me of the droid campaign in that it’s long on sizzle and short on function. It shows lots of pretty pictures the relate to how the device is built, but nothing about what it can do. Looks to me like they’re targeting Android fans.

There are those who criticize Apple’s advertising because it shows apps more than the devices, but isn’t that the point? It’s not about the device, it’s about doing something, whether it’s watching a movie, writing the great American novel, chatting with your grandchildren, or killing time with Angry Birds. How well will it do those things is still the great unknown.

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