Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Jun. 19th
In a move that is equal parts inevitable and surprising Microsoft announced their own entry into the tablet market last night. Dubbed the Surface, after the experimental touch screen tech they’ve been showing off on morning news shows for years now, the tablet devices are one of the Redmond giant’s rare forays into the hardware market.
Until the new device reaches market we won’t know if this is an XBox or a Zune in terms of popularity, but right now we can discern a few things:
Apple’s iPad is THE tablet right now. None of the Android devices have come close and the less said about the Blackberry Playbook the better. Microsoft has done some real iterative innovation on the form and function of a tablet with their two-tiered product line and the emphasis on built in keyboards on both of their attachable covers. The kickstand on the back of the device is a nice touch, as just about everybody uses tablets to watch videos at one point or another.
The keyboard covers really set the device apart from the competition, and that’s the kind of user interface feature differentiation that somebody needed to come out with in order to start making the argument “why would I get this instead of an iPad?” Throw in the pen input on the Windows 8 PRO version and you have something that beings to look and feel like a significantly different piece of tech from the iPad.
It’s a Big Change in MS Strategy:
Microsoft is a software company. That’s right in the name. A few weeks ago I was lauding their choice to make their “Smart Glass” initiative a cross platform software affair. What we didn’t expect was for them to them double down in the tablet space and release a showcase hardware device for the Metro interface they’ve built. This cuts against Microsoft’s usual pattern of working with third party hardware manufacturers. It’s a sure sign of just how much Apple has defined the current age of computing: Google pursues the more traditional Microsoft strategy of relying on hardware partners while MS goes and follows Apple’s lead.
Not that Microsoft is going with full simplicity here. There are two major branches of Surface. Both models look the same, but have different guts and capabilities. The Windows RT versions will be the lower priced of the two models and run on ARM chipsets, which power a lot of the mobile market. The Windows 8 PRO versions add in the pen tool and run on Intel chips that are destined for laptops. It is a market bifurcation that might be confusing if viewed from the vantage point of luring iPad consumers, but between the form factor and the inclusion of Windows 8 on the high end models it’s clear to me that the iPad is a tertiary target here.
Microsoft is going after the ultra book space with these products.
When fully assembled the kits look like laptops that transform into tablets just by folding back the cover. Why would anyone get a Windows based ultra book when you can have one of these things? Even more dangerous for Google: why would you get an Android tablet if you are a PC user?
The current era of computing is rapidly becoming about the full ecosystem: being able to take both productivity and media from desktop to mobile to TV. At present Apple has the strongest desktop to mobile solution, with iTunes running the media side of equation and iCloud bringing the productivity side up to snuff. Google has their feet planted firmly in the cloud, but have yet to gain any passion for their media products Reliable, but unsexy– exactly where Microsoft was a decade ago in terms of personal computing.
It’s Not Just About the Hardware:
Microsoft has a big weapon here, one that none of the others bring to the table: the install base of the XBox. If Microsoft can pull off– and this is a big if– seamless integration of their media environment across the Surface, desktop and XBox lines they have a serious advantage over both Apple and Google in terms of owning the media landscape long term. Google TV has not caught on and Apple TV is still qualified by that company as a hobby.
If the music and videos a consumer purchases on the Surface tablet synch effortlessly to their home XBox, that will make a strong case for making those purchases within Microsoft’s ecosystem. Which in turn drives future hardware and software sales. A virtuous cycle that every major player is desperate to get turning in their favor.