Microsoft Surface: A Windows Nexus Tablet or a Kick in the Butt?

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After a weekend of speculation around three separate rumors, Microsoft on Monday introduced a new tablet, using a familiar name, but left many questions unanswered. The company brought out the big guns for the Hollywood introduction of Surface, its own model of Windows 8 tablets. Both CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows division President Steve Sinofsky were present to show off the slick new hardware.

If that brand name sounds familiar, that’s because Microsoft already has a Surface product, a large, table-sized multitouch display that’s used in retail outlets like AT&T Wireless stores. That product has been renamed “PixelSense”.

Microsoft SurfaceThe new Surface is a tablet that comes in two models, regular and Pro. The standard version is powered by NVIDIA’s ARM-based Tegra processor and runs Windows RT while the Pro version will run an x86 processor, an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, which is typically reserved for notebooks.

Surface is about the same weight and thickness as an iPad but with a 10.6-inch screen in 1920 x 1080 resolution (at least for the Intel version) and supporting Microsoft ClearType fonts. The ARM version will come with either 32 or 64GB of storage, while the Intel will have either 64GB or 128GB.

The back of the device has a built-in “kickstand” that allows it to be propped up in landscape mode and it has a thin detachable cover with a built-in keyboard. The keyboard illuminates when it connects to the tablet and comes in seven different colors.

However, there’s no release date or price. Microsoft said suggested retail pricing will be announced “closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC.”

Just Like Google?
It has shades of Google’s efforts with the Nexus phone. The company never intended to compete with other Android licensees, it just made the phone as a proof of concept and to set the bar for its OEM partners, since the Nexus was one of the first to use an AMOLED display.

Carolina Milanesi, a research vice president for consumer technologies & markets at Gartner, thinks that’s what Microsoft is trying to do here, as well. “I don’t think [Microsoft] did it because they didn’t believe in their OEM partners. I think it has more to do with setting a benchmark, showing off what Metro can do and at the same time, actually bring some sexiness back into the Microsoft brand, to show Microsoft gets it,” she said.

In the process, will ODM partners be happy about it? Probably not, said Milanesi, because now they are competing with their OS provider. But she adds Microsoft is not as unpredictable as Google has been with Android.

“You know what Microsoft wants to do, versus the end goal for Google seems to kind of change and not be as clear for the ODMs. They brought Android to market with all partners being treated equal, then they started working with selected partners. You don’t really know what is next, whereas Microsoft is a bit more predictable as how it will play out,” she said.

If the price is right, the Pro edition could be what Microsoft needs to get into the enterprise. “From a consumer perspective, you still want to look at what apps you will get. But for the enterprise, that link to the PC, having your [desktop] apps and the way Microsoft talked about it with full PC capability, that plus the price, I think is going to attract more profession users,” said Milanesi.

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