You could be mistaken for believing that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was channeling the spirit of Steve Jobs during the launch event of Microsoft's new Surface tablets. Tell me if you think this sounds familiar:
"We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when hardware and software are considered together."
It's a page ripped right out of the Apple playbook, and I don't blame Microsoft for taking matters into its own hands. In fact, Microsoft's self-made tablets look like the best thing to happen to the PC industry in a long time. Nevermind the fact that Microsoft is competing with its own partners. The company just helped them by putting them on notice.
Leading up to the launch of Windows 8, I've seen a lot of laptop-tablet hybrid designs that attempt to marry the two classes of products. Some are Ultrabooks with touch capability while others are slates that detach from a dock. But the Surface is the first hybrid that feels like a fully integrated and holistic solution. The premium magnesium design screams “high-quality,” while the sturdy kickstand that folds out from the device is ideal for entertainment and typing.
Which brings us to the Touch Cover. It's an ingenious accessory that attaches to the device magnetically but does Apple's Smart Cover one better by building in a ultrathin, pressure-sensitive keyboard and touchpad. Add in Office 15 and you have the Microsoft equivalent of the iPad Pro.
The Surface will come in two flavors, one powered by an Nvidia ARM processor running Windows RT and another with an Intel CPU running Windows 8 Pro. The former product looks like it has more potential for success because it’s lighter (1.5 versus 2 pounds) and will be cheaper. The Surface for Windows 8 Pro looks more like an enterprise play, with the distinct advantage of supporting Microsoft’s huge library of desktop apps.
Nevertheless, both Surface tablets seem to cater more to mobile professionals than everyday consumers. After all, lots of iPad owners seem content typing on a touch screen. But to me, that’s a smart move. I’ve yet to use the iPad for work on a regular basis because it simply doesn’t do enough for me as a productivity machine. There’s a real opening here for Microsoft.
The Surface launch event left a lot of questions unanswered. We don’t know the exact resolutions of the screens, just a vague ClearType HD for the ARM tablet and Full HD for the Intel one. And we don’t know the rated battery life of either product. Most important, Microsoft hasn’t yet provided details on pricing, although the company does say the Surface for Windows RT will be priced competitively with other ARM-based Windows 8 (we’re guessing $500 to $600) slates and that the Surface for Windows 8 Pro will have a similar cost to an Ultrabook (probably about $1,000).
Microsoft shouldn’t be the least bit skittish about going head to head with its Windows 8 licensees. It should be proud of the Surface’s sexy industrial design and for forcefully rebutting Apple CEO Tim Cook's claim that putting PCs and tablets together is like mashing together refrigerators and toasters. If Microsoft’s partners are wise, they’ll turn that jealousy into inspiration — or just get out of the way.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.