Microsoft once again is at the top of technology news, this time with the introduction of its Windows 8 Surface tablets. A glance at a photo of them and one might think they were Apple iPads—a year or two from now.
Certainly these tablets, with their innovative designs, beautiful appearance and cutting-edge operating systems, could not be from Microsoft. Certainly not. But they are.
Even some of the most jaded in the technology press are using words like awesome, bold, Hail Mary, mysterious, sick, and just plain cool to describe the Surface tablets.
Microsoft introduced two versions of the Surface: a svelte, 0.37-inch thick, 1.5-pound tablet with an ARM processor and running Windows RT, the mobile version of Windows 8; and a 0.53-inch-thick tablet with an Intel third-generation Core i5 processor running Windows 8 Pro. Both have shells made out of a specially developed form of magnesium that Microsoft is calling VaporMG, and both have 10.6-inch high-definition displays made with tough Corning Gorilla Glass 2.
And most important to their standout design, both have integrated kickstands to prop them up in the back and magnetic-latching display covers in the front that convert into keyboards when open. There will be two covers available, the Touch Cover, which is just 0.12 inches thick and has a touch-sensitive keyboard, and the Type Cover, a 0.2-inch cover with slightly raised keys.
The introduction itself was "out of the box," held at Milk, a chic media production studio in Los Angeles, away from the customary San Francisco or New York tech locations, and at a seemingly inexplicable time, late in the afternoon on the West Coast and several months before these products might hit the shelves.
Microsoft wanted to make a statement. And it wanted to make it now, to shake things up, even if the products it showed were not really ready. The introduction, along with at the opening of E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, earlier this month, stands in contrast to that had the press writing about what didn't happen.
Microsoft, for years the fat and happy, monopolistic tech giant, sees its future threatened on virtually all fronts by the mobile revolution, and instead of retreating is reinventing itself. It's not easy, trying to hold on to its historical base, particularly in the lucrative enterprise market, and at the same time seeking to be competitive in the new "computing anywhere" paradigm that threatens the Windows desktop.
So the Surface demo in a way resembled an old Looney Tunes cartoon in which Elmer Fudd has his wooden boat sliced in half lengthwise by a shark fin, and with one foot on one side and one foot on the other is trying desperately to hold the boat together. Apple and Android sharks are circling.
The coming update of Windows looks like it's all of the same piece, but in fact it's two separate operating systems: Windows 8 for the traditional Intel x86 PC platform and Windows RT for tablets that use low-power mobile chips designed by the British-based ARM Holdings plc.
The two versions of Windows have similar branding and look the same on the "surface," but underneath Windows RT is a mobile operating system that is not compatible with any current Windows programs. Microsoft will have a version of its Office productivity suite running on RT, but it will have a limited feature set and will likely be about as related to the current Windows version of Office as the several Office-app clones out there for iOS and Android.
The Surface tablets are an extension of this same dichotomy. While on the "surface" they appear similar and both can run the new, garish-blocky Windows 8 Metro interface, underneath the RT version is an iPad or Android clone with very few apps available for it, while the other is mostly a lightweight Ultrabook PC in disguise that can run legacy Windows software. In fact, it can even be plugged into a desktop display and full keyboard and run as an ordinary desktop computer with the Windows 8 "classic" user interface.
The specs and expected pricing split that way, too. The Surface RT tablet is aimed at Windows users who have held out but might otherwise cave and buy their first Apple product in an iPad. The Surface Windows 8 Pro tablet will be aimed at enterprise IT departments that want to keep employees happy by providing them with tablets, but need them to be secure and manageable and do everything their laptops used to do.
The RT tablet is expected to be available around the same time as Windows 8 launches, sometime this fall, while Microsoft says the Windows 8 Pro version will follow about three months later.
Whether Microsoft can deliver working products that resemble the tablets it showed remains to be seen. The Surface line is likely at a much earlier stage of development than Microsoft wanted to let on. The many questions left unanswered, and limited hands-on for the media (in at least one case the tablet was not even powered on) tell us that.
The biggest questions are battery life and pricing, and how Microsoft's hardware partners react to having to compete with the same company they depend on for an operating system. There may be other stumbling blocks as well that come with introducing so many innovations at once: the new operating system, the magnesium shell, the keyboards, the tight dimensions for all the circuitry. A lot of moving parts.
But whether the Surface is a spectacular success or a spectacular failure, Microsoft has to be credited with showing bold, thoughtful, gutsy innovation. At a minimum it will wake up both its partners and its rivals to push the envelope, and the digital world is better for it.