Microsoft shocked a lot of people, including its partners, with the reveal of the new Surface tablets. But, many questions still need to be answered before any verdict can be reached, including the ultimate indicator of success, will they sell?
What Price Surface Power?
After the initial "wow" and "cool" vibes emanating from Microsoft's Surface unveiling, a whole bunch of questions have arisen about what Microsoft needs to do to succeed. Apart from now being a direct rival to many of its long-time partners, one key issue left unanswered at the press event was the prices of the Surface devices.
They have to be broadly comparable to the iPad, otherwise they will be pretty much dead in the water, no matter how neat the concept. The notion of the Microsoft tax is pretty much obsolete in the tablet market, and consumer won't care that it's a "Microsoft product" as opposed to a HP, Dell or Apple (see Zune sales for proof).
They also have to have high appeal-value, everyone knows what an iPad is and, even if they don't want one, they know what it does. Surface will have to distinguish itself from both PCs and tablets, selling the benefits of both while overcoming the perception of both products' drawbacks.
As for those disgruntled partners, branching out into Android or Google Chrome tablet/PC hybrids could see more ecosystems flooding into the space to muddy the waters.
What's the Difference Between A Tablet and A PC?
I guess we're about to find out when Microsoft finally releases these Surface devices. Because until now, tablets over been over-sized smartphones and PCs have been PCs, whatever the styling be it sub-notebook or ultrabook. Sure Microsoft has bolted the charming-looking Metro interface into Windows 8 to ensure things look "phone-like" but that's still not the same as an actual tablet.
The first thought that springs to mind is what happens when an app crashes? Windows 8's new "sad face of death" might look better than the old blue screen, but will consumer-grade Surface tablet owners appreciate the irony, when they need help understanding their system? Will those keyboards withstand long term use, and will the user's fingers more to the point?
How often does your iPad or Android crash? Even when it does, a quick reboot usually does the trick. Will Surface be so forgiving? How about those quirky pauses in the browsers (both Firefox and Internet Explorer) when an add-on starts playing up? What will non-technical users do then? There's a whole world of other Windows quirks out there waiting to show up and annoy users used to a smooth tablet experience.
Will They Have Enterprise Appeal?
While Apple has been slowly making headway in enterprise through BYOD stealthiness, Microsoft could well kick in the front door of any business with these devices. The Windows 8 versions will be fully compatible with apps and documents, and help make that data more portable for road warriors, mobile workers and so on.
With some IT managers complaining about having to support Apple's gadgets, Surface devices could give them the break they need to enforce consistent security and applications across a company or enterprise, while providing users with sexy, lightweight gadgets instead of, or alongside, notebooks and desktops.
The Big Question: Surface vs. iPad?
Given recent history (Zune, Kin and those Windows stylus-tablets), any Microsoft product should get spanked by an Apple one. But folks were probably saying that back in the Apple Mac vs. early Windows PC days.
However, this time it is a direct battle between them (with no partners to get in between the two combatants). Microsoft and Apple both have huge cash reserves to throw into the fight, but Apple has a huge lead in tablet hardware presence, the power of the iPhone/iPad partnership and a huge app store.
Microsoft is building the app store, aka Windows Store, and developers will come, because Windows 8 will sell hundreds of millions of licenses. But will consumers and business flock to Surface as a concept. Do people want a tablet that's like their PC, or would we rather have tablets that are distinct?
Come the launch of Windows 8 and the arrival of these devices, we will find out, but it is a battle that will roll on through several iterations of Apple iPad (will they "borrow" the keyboard idea eventually? Or nudge a partner into making them as accessories, alongside Apple docks) and Surface evolution.
Street Dates and Styles
The Windows RT models will be available in 32GB and 64GB and should match their rival's prices (around $500). The professional Windows 8 editions will be available in 64GB and 128GB configurations, and be priced more like ultrabooks (around $799+).
The Windows RT version will launch first, followed by Windows 8 some three months later. A big launch event is planned for when they go onsale. That was perhaps where Microsoft fell behind on Apple in its presentation, if these had been hitting the shops in two or three weeks, demand would have gone bananas. As it is, rivals now have time to position their own products, reduce pricing and so on.