Late last week, Microsoft sent invitations to select technology journalists for a mystery press announcement in Los Angeles. The invitation didn't disclose or even hint at what would be announced (the event location was secret until this morning), other than a cryptic promise that "This will be a major Microsoft announcement – you will not want to miss it."
Well, it was definitely a major Microsoft announcement, though not a completely surprising one. Despite last-minute rumors that Microsoft would revive the Courier (a silly idea given how much Microsoft is investing in Windows 8), the reveal turned out to be a first-party Windows 8 tablet. And it's claiming the name from another Microsoft product: Surface. Microsoft is making its own PC hardware, and this is a big deal not just for the software company, but for its OEM partners as well.
As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer explained, company founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen made a bet on software, which continues to be the "heart and soul" of the company. And while Microsoft has always had its toes into the hardware business, from the first mouse for Windows 1.0 to the Xbox (Zune and the Cordless Phone System were not mentioned), system hardware has always been left to Microsoft's OEM partners like HP, Dell, and Samsung. Just earlier this month, Microsoft's OEM partners announced Windows 8 tablets at the Computex convention in Taipei. But now, those OEMs will have to compete not just with each other, but also directly with Microsoft. Said Ballmer, "It was always clear that what our software could do would require us to push hardware, sometimes where our partners hadn't envisioned."
And from the looks of it, Surface is much more than an iPad clone. Let's take a look at the hardware.
Most importantly, Surface is actually not one, but two different devices. The first is a Windows RT tablet, meaning that it'll run on an ARM processor (made by Nvidia) and won't be able to run legacy x86 Windows applications. This is Microsoft's direct alternative to the iPad. The ARM-based Surface will be 676 grams (1.5lbs), 9.3mm thick, and have a 10.6" HD display (
no specific resolution announced yet hands-on reports indicate that it's a 1366x768 panel). It'll be powered by a non-removable 31.5 Wh battery and have a microSD card slot, USB 2.0 port, microi HDMI port, and 2x2 MIMO antennae. Microsoft says the tablet will be available when Windows 8 is released, and will be priced competitively with other Windows RT tablets.
The other Surface tablet will run Windows 8 Pro, meaning it'll have an x86 processor (a demo unit had an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge chip). The difference in hardware platform raises its size to 13.5mm thick with a targeted weight of 903 grams (almost two pounds). It'll also have a USB 3.0 port and support for microSDXC cards. Both tablets have the same 10.6" Gorilla Glass 2 display at 16:9 aspect ratio, reinforcing Microsoft's belief that tablets are best used in the landscape position. The Windows 8 Pro Surface will be available 3 months after the ARM version, so probably by the end of the year. It'll also be more expensive and priced in line with Ultrabooks (~$1000).
What makes Surface potentially really different from Apple's iPad (aside from built-in ports and x86 compatibility) is that Microsoft really wants you to use it like a laptop. Surface has a large fold-out kickstand (
3mm correction: it's .7mm thick) that angles the tablet for use on a desk, much like Apple's Smart Cover does for the iPad. But here, the kickstand and the cover are two separate entities--the built-in kickstand holds the tablet up, and the magnetic cover actually doubles as a touch keyboard and trackpad. That's super cool. Microsoft will even have a Type Cover with physical keys (1.5mm promised key travel) for tactile typing. The Touch Cover is reported to be 3mm thick, while the Type Cover is supposed to be 5.5mm thick.
Additionally, the Windows 8 Pro (x86) Surface has two digitizers on its screen--one for touch and one for pen input. At the press announcement, Microsoft made a big deal about the accuracy of Surface's pen digitizer, which "samples" pen input at 600dpi. The screen also has a proximity sensor to disable the touch sensor when the stylus is close to the screen, and Microsoft claims that the distance between the stylus and the screen is .7mm. I can't wait to test this. Given the popularity of third-party iPad styli--despite the iPad's touchscreen not designed for pen input--robust pen support on the Surface could be a big deal.
Whether or not Surface will be a good tablet or computer remains to be seen--there are too many variables on both the software side (Metro is still unproven) and the hardware side (no mention of battery life at all). And even if Surface is actually a good or great product, there's no guarantee that consumers will buy into it. But it's clear that Surface is a big deal for Microsoft. The company has come a long way from when Ballmer held up an HP Slate during his 2010 CES keynote and announced Microsoft's intent to embrace "slate computing" (keep in mind this was before the first iPad's debut). I'm looking forward to using the Surface when it becomes available later this year, but am more excited at the prospect of Microsoft fully embracing in-house hardware design and manufacturing. If the Surface proves successful, there's no reason we couldn't see a Microsoft phone or laptop soon after.