If you had eavesdropped on any of the conversations I’d had this last week about technology, it was probably about Microsoft’s future. With their unveiling of SmartGlass at E3, Windows 8’s Release Edition, and my general love of their Windows Phone platform, there was a lot to talk about. And then, late last week, there was a rumor that Microsoft would be releasing a tablet that would be self-branded, rather than simply licensed. This was a big rumor, and initially many people had doubts. Was the event related to Nokia? Perhaps to Barnes and Noble? When both of them denied any involvement, people began to go forth with the rumor.
Well, the rumors were true. Microsoft has unveiled what they call the Surface. This tablet has the best chance of dethroning the iPad as the ruler of 10.x inch touchscreen-based computing platforms. It isn’t for lack of trying from other manufacturers; Android tablets have been floating around for awhile now, with little impact on the market (and, of course, there was the HP Touchpad, which did little except convince everyone that the only way you can sell a tablet was to slash its prices down to a ridiculous loss). But to have Microsoft step in and try to press their weight against the giant Apple? They’ve got a shot at leveraging a spot in the war for tablets.
Microsoft is now in a unique position. They didn’t talk about how this will integrate with their SmartGlass initiative, but it has got to be on their minds. If they can leverage and connect the Surface with the Xbox 360 and other PCs that people already have (and ideally with phones), suddenly you have access to a huge ecosystem that is, frankly, unprecedented. Microsoft already sits many living rooms, and in the majority of homes, in some form or another. If this tablet can function as a way to pull all of that together, then I see little reason not to get one of these in place of a tablet or even a laptop. The primary reason, for me, would be a lack of gaming options; I do just enough gaming on my laptop that to go without it when travelling (particularly to visit family in Colorado) would be a bother, but certainly not impossible.
I will give the big guys in Redmond credit where it is due: they are not marketing this as a “bring all of your devices together” device; this is good, in spite of what I just wrote above. If they are truly going to step into the iPad’s sales territory, the Surface has to sell itself. Microsoft has to let this device shine on its own merits, and have every bit of SmartGlass interaction function as a tiebreaker, so to speak. If I were making a decision between the Surface and, say, an Ultrabook, I would need to be sold by the Surface’s functionality; the touch input, the stylus, and the sheer portability of the thing would need to convince me this was worthwhile. After all, SmartGlass is supposed to work with anything running Windows 8, and an Ultrabook would definitely be doing that. If I were comparing the Surface to an iPad, however, I may see them as pretty comparable, spec-to-spec, and the SmartGlass functionality may push the Surface to the decision point for me. That is, of course, if they are comparably priced.
I’m eager to see what Microsoft will do with the Surface. If they are going to pull this off, they’ve got to get those into people’s hands, and they have to work well. Would I recommend a Surface to a technologically-impaired parent or grandparent, like I might an iPad? Would I use the Surface to do school work, or just for consumption? Will the Surface replace my laptop, or will it just accompany it, like my iPad currently does? These are the questions Microsoft needs to answer with their product; and I for one hope they can.