Yesterday Microsoft held a surprise press conference in LA when they unveiled the Microsoft Surface Tablet, a product that they have successfully managed to keep under-wraps for a couple of years (I created on online poll, and of the 74 respondents, only 25 guessed correctly).
The new tablet comes in two flavours, both of which run Windows 8. The cheaper model, Surface RT, has an ARM processor and will only run newer Metro-style Windows 8 applications (Win8 has a rather strange split personality, it is almost two separate OSs in one), while the more expensive model, Surface Pro, is a bit bulkier and includes an Intel processor that will allow it to run both Metro and traditional desktop apps. Most significantly, the Surface Pro model will run all of your existing Windows software (Word, Excel, Visual Studio, PhotoShop, ...)
So why has Microsoft made this bold move? It doesn't have much of a reputation as a hardware manufacturer!
As an owner of a Windows Phone 7 and an iPhone I think I can answer this one. Windows Phone is a really great phone OS, for the tasks I use it for (mostly email, internet and calendar), it does a great job. I have multiple mail accounts and can pin each to the start screen, or even pin folders. The live tiles and lock screen information make it very easy for me to see upcoming calendar events and mail. For business use, Windows Phone has a few great productivity features that the iPhone cannot match. I was hoping that iOS6 might re-invent the home screen to provide something more like Android's Widget or Windows Phone's Live Tiles; so the news that Siri could now tell me baseball scores was a bit of a disappointment!
But there's one big problem with Windows Phone ... the phone hardware itself. I have a HTC Trophy, and the overall build quality is poor. I have also used the Samsung Omnia, Lumia 710 and various other models, and none of them have impressed me. In contrast, the iPhone is practically a work of art! When you own one you can see why Apple products instil a certain sense of pride in their owners. It's not just the cosmetics, the phone is incredibly robust and the screen and back cover are both highly scratch resistant.
With Windows 8 going head to head with the iPad, which shares the same aesthetics and build quality of the iPhone, Microsoft must have realised that quality hardware is critical to the success of Windows 8 (at least as a tablet OS).
Reports from journalists who have had a chance to have a brief play with Surface seem to indicate that it has the same top-end feel that an iPad has. It also has another trick up its sleeve - the keyboard. The Surface has a magnetically attached fold out cover, much like the iPad, however, the Windows Surface cover also doubles as a keyboard. To my mind this further underlines the Surface being pitched as a productivity tool, especially the Pro model.
I'm still in two minds about Windows 8, my feeling is that the developer community have not really embraced this OS, due to the ever moving goal-posts (from WPF to Silverlight, to Silverlight for Windows Phone, to WinRT, all similar yet quite different). This could mean a real lack of quality software when Surface hits the shops. Also, we have yet to hear about the pricing and distribution (there are hints that it might be US only at first). I am not ready to place my bets yet, but I will say this:
With Surface, Microsoft has given Windows 8 the best possible chance of success.
Regards, Colin E.