But these tablets won't be available for months, and there's a big difference between giving demonstrations on stage and delivering great commercial products.
Microsoft is producing its own brand of Surface tablets. There are two versions: one running Windows 8 Pro and one with Windows RT (Runtime). These are not rebranded devices from other manufacturers. They are not generic black boxes cranked out by OEMs. They are like the Xbox -- a Microsoft product. And in some ways, they are different from any other tablet.
Microsoft has channeled Apple's design obsession. Executives spent a considerable amount of time during the presentation in Hollywood discussing the Surface design. The tablets are crafted from magnesium in a process Microsoft has trademarked as VaporMg. The edges are angled downward to make the device comfortable to hold and make hardware "disappear," so users focus on the software experience.
The Surface tablets feature an integrated kickstand, so they don't require a case to stand upright at an angle. Panos Panay, Microsoft's general manager of Surface, said the design team spent a long time ensuring the kickstand felt right and produced the right sound, like the click of a car door.
The tablets also include two covers, one of which is unique. The Touch Cover, which attaches to the tablet magnetically (like Apple's Smart Covers), is made of Polartec fabric and has a keyboard and touchpad embedded on the inside. When the tablet is standing upright on its kickstand and the Touch Cover is attached and laying flat in front of it, the keyboard is much easier to use than a glass on-screen keyboard, according to Microsoft.
The cover is 3mm (0.11 inches) thin, because the keys are flat images, rather than raised hardware. When the cover is folded out of the way to the back of the tablet, its power turns off automatically, because it contains an accelerometer for knowing the keys aren't used.
Microsoft also will offer a 5mm (0.19 inches) Type Cover with hardware keys. The keys have a little key travel but offer a better typing experience than the Type Case, though it might be much less comfortable than the portable iPad and Android keyboards.
The screens of both the Windows RT and Window 8 tablets are the same size (10.6 inches) and use Gorilla Glass, but the devices differ in some features. The Windows RT tablet uses an ARM-based chip and weighs about 1.5 pounds. The Windows 8 tablet weighs almost two pounds.
Also, the Windows RT tablet includes a microSD card slot, a USB 2.0 port, and either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. The Windows 8 tablet features a microSDXC card slot, a USB 3.0 port, and 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. It also includes a stylus.
Both tablets include dual MIMO antennas for WiFi, which could result in the best WiFi reception of any tablet on the market.
Microsoft is positioning the two tablets as both consumption and creation devices. "Because of Windows 8, the Surface is a PC," CEO Steve Ballmer said. "The Surface is a tablet. And the Surface is something new that we think people will love."
But will they love it? Microsoft said the Windows RT tablet will be available when Windows 8 is released, which should be around October. Its cost will be "competitive" with other ARM tablets, which means starting anywhere from $400 to $500. The Windows 8 Pro tablet will be available about three months later and priced in the neighborhood of Ultrabook laptops, which means starting around $800.
The Windows RT tablet will be bundled with a version of Microsoft Office called Office 15, and it will run only apps using the Metro graphical interface. The Windows 8 Pro tablet will run both Metro and legacy Windows applications.
If developers flock to Surface to create thousands of innovative consumer and enterprise applications, if regular Window 8 apps work well, if the battery life is good, and if the tablets could be used as viable laptop replacements, then Microsoft might have created a competitor to the iPad.
I'd venture to say the Year of the Tablet has already occured. Apple sold more than 14 million when it introduced the first iPad in 2010. But perhaps it's more of the Year of the iPad than the Year of the Tablet.
Perhaps 2012 or 2013 will be the Year of the Tablet Besides the iPad if Microsoft's Surface and/or the Nexus 7 take off.
Samsung can build good tablets, but there has been a dearth of tablet-optimized apps. Google seems to continue to tell developers to create one version of an app for Android phones and tablets, and I wonder if that's an appropriate philosophy.
Also, how many OEMs will invest the huge amount of money that Apple has poured into the iPad and that Microsoft is apparently pouring into the Surface tablets? Indeed, that's why Microsoft decided to create the Surface, especially after seeing how HP botched the Windows 7 "slate."
The Windows 8 Pro, as it's called, running legacy apps and Metro apps could be successful in enterprises. But there are all sorts of considerations and questions about using a Surface tablet as a laptop replacement.
There are so many things about Microsoft Surface tablets we don't know that it's really difficult to make any judgment in advance of a detailed examination of the finished products and knowing the price, number and quality of apps, etc.
It is possible, though, the Surface tablets, especially the Intel ones, could appeal to enterprises.
Apple is much more consumer oriented than enterprise oriented. Steve Jobs, for good reasons, didn't want to deal with enterprises. Consumers see something they like and buy it. Enterprises see somethng they like and take months or years to decide to purchase. The process of selling to enterprises is a lot different than to consumers.
However, Apple products have been infiltrating enterprises because employees love Apple. Even if enterprises don't officially sanction Apple, employees are using iPhones, iPads and Mac laptops.
Microsoft could have a very serious problem with its tablets. Consumers -- who are also employees! -- are used to iPads that don't have weekly or monthly security updates, like Microsoft computers. iPads don't have DLLs and a registry to cause problems. Will Surface tablets require constant security patches? Uers could rebel.
Your question about a tablet that both enterprise and consumer friendly is a good one. The Windows RT tablet for ARM is much more consumer friendly and the Windows 8 Pro for Intel is more enterprise friendly.
The enterprise demands support for its legacy applications and excellent IT controls for security and managing devices. These requirements add overhead that consumers don't need.
I think this super secret press event with only demo devices to show could be a mistake for the tech giant. The lag time between announcement and production devices is really too long compared to Apple. I do think competitors will rush to market tablet devices they have already been developing. This is going to be the year of the tablet...again...right? How many year of the tablets have we had already?
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