We've now had a day to sleep on and digest Microsoft's big Surface tablet announcement from yesterday. Analysts and pundits (both Apple and Microsoft acolytes) are out in force scrutinizing every bit of information they can glean from the event--from Steven Sinofsky's apparent nervousness to the unmentioned new magnetic power/data connector. None of that really matters. The only people who have actually held a Surface are Microsoft employees and the select journalists in attendance at Milk Studios yesterday. Even the tech press didn't get to spend much time with the device--and they only handled the Windows RT (ARM) version. Until we actually get to use and test Surface as a day-to-day computer, it's all idle speculation. Plus, the event explicitly left in question some really important concerns, like battery life and price.
What's not at all in question in Microsoft's intention with the Surface. And it's more than just a new-found stance on taking PC hardware seriously--that much is painfully obvious (though by no means insignificant). In report after report, Surface is being compared to Apple's iPad. Yes, Surface is a new family of tablet computers. And because they're tablets, the iPad comparison is apt, to a point. But it's so obvious that Surface is more than just an iPad competitor. Microsoft's Mike Anguilo described the Windows 8 Pro (x86) version of the Surface with one line that resonates with me: "[it has] specs that rival those of the finest ultrabooks that have ever been announced." Surface is taking on more than just the iPad; it's taking on the MacBook Air.
And when we make that comparison, Surface really starts to look interesting.
Let's shelve discussion of the Windows RT version of the Surface for now. As I said yesterday, there are too many variables in both the hardware and software to make a adequate comparison between this Surface and the iPad. Windows 8 Metro as a useful tablet OS will make or break the device, not how thick it is or how much it weighs compared to Apple's current (or next-gen) iPad.
But with Surface with Windows 8 Pro (it's a terrible name, so let's call it the x86 Surface for now), both the hardware and software are better defined. This is a fully-functional computer that runs Windows 8 (with full Desktop and legacy program support) and has the same internal hardware as the latest ultrabooks. The unit shown on stage yesterday was running an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge CPU--the same family of chips powering the new MacBook Airs. Like other Ivy Bridge computers, you'll be able to play Diablo III on this machine (what a killer demo that would've been yesterday). It has a USB 3.0 port and DisplayPort video out. It's lighter than the MacBook Air and potentially thinner when the Type Cover keyboard is attached. Its 10.6" screen has a native resolution of 1920x1080, while the 11" MacBook Air has a 1366x768 display. Already, this is looking competitive as a mobile productivity computer, especially for users invested in Windows programs. And it has both a touchscreen and pen digitizer (effectiveness and usefulness to be determined). Even if you don't take into account Apple, you can be sure that Ultrabook makers like Lenovo and Samsung are taking notice. Remember that Lenovo Yoga laptop we really liked at CES? The x86 Surface is its direct competition.
The kickstand/Type Cover combination of the Surface--arguably the two most buzzed-about features from yesterday's announcement--really call out the difference in Microsoft and Apple's approach to tablet computing, and maybe computing in general. By putting the iPad along with the iPhone in the iOS family of devices, Apple is betting on computer-user interfaces evolving past the keyboard and mouse. Touch was the first big step, and voice (ie. Siri) is next. The continued "iOS-ification" of Mac OS points to this trend. You're likely never going to find a digital pen built into any Apple products, and it's possible that at some point Apple products will do away with physical keyboards completely.
Microsoft, on the other hand, knows that its bread and butter is in Windows--and that means the PC as we've come to know and use for the past 25 years. Windows 8 is an unprecedented move for Microsoft in that it actually embraces touch interfaces (and not half-asses it like with previous attempts), but it's not a complete paradigm shift in computer interaction. You can call it playing it safe or holding on to a crutch, but it's really Microsoft recognizing what users want now and not getting too far ahead of itself. It's not the same as OEMs keeping VGA ports on skinny laptops. Windows is still made for desktops and notebooks with keyboards and mice--that's why I'll be able to play StarCraft on a Surface and not an iPad. The x86 Surface, as much as it looks like a tablet, is just a new notebook formfactor. That's its innovation, and I think its an exciting one.