The empire strikes back: is Surface a winning tablet?

Microsoft Surface
Has Microsoft reinvented the tablet with Surface?

Hold the front page: Microsoft is sexy! Bear with us on that one, and try not to think about Steve Ballmer. Think instead of Microsoft Surface, the company's new and rather exciting entry into the tablet market.

More iPad than TouchPad, Surface is genuinely desirable and genuinely innovative: its clever Touch Cover and Type Cover, if they work like Microsoft promises, take tablet covers and turn them into keyboards and trackpads. There are two devices, one ARM-powered and running Windows RT, and one Intel-powered and running Windows 8 Pro. Both devices have integrated Wi-Fi but don't appear to come in 3G/4G versions.

Even Microsoft's hardware partners were surprised, which is probably just as well as Microsoft is now competing directly with them. As John McCann points out, it's a very significant move: "The Surface tablet marks a significant step in Microsoft's development, as it's the first time in its 37 year history that the firm has produced computing hardware itself, instead of using original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)." Microsoft says it won't neglect OEMs, but then, it would say that, wouldn't it?

Surface is generating serious buzz for Microsoft, but our resident grump Gary Marshall reckons we should hang on a bit: the presentation was shockingly light on details: "It's on sale in mumblemumble and the price starts at ahemahemahem," he writes, pointing out that Microsoft's claims are very vague. "The Windows RT Surface will be 'priced competitively with a comparable ARM tablet'. Which one? A no-name Chinese Android cheapie, or the top-end iPad with 4G? The Windows Pro one will be priced competitively with direct rivals. Which ones? Windows 8 ones? Android ones? Apple ones?"

Marshall's big concern is that Surface, for now at least, is vapourware. "It's yet another bit of jam tomorrow, one more example of the 'no, we don't have a tablet just yet but when we do it's going to be the bestest tablet ever and it'll totally kill Apple and stuff!' mentality that's plagued the tech industry since the iPad," he says. "Until Surface ships, "it's a promise, not a product."

Microsoft powers up Windows Phone

Surface wasn't Microsoft's only big news this week: it also unveiled Windows Phone 8, which is due out in the autumn. There's good news and bad news: the good news is that it's packed with ace new features, and the bad news is that existing Windows Phone handsets won't run it. Instead they'll be able to get Windows Phone 7.8, which will look like Windows Phone 8 but won't contain the shared core that makes it easier for developers to write apps.

As Mary Branscombe explains, Windows Phone 8 is a really big deal. "Windows Phone 8 is a major new version, running the kernel from Windows rather than from Windows CE," she says. "Microsoft is adding the features that Windows Phone needs to succeed and that need new hardware... now it just needs to sell more devices."

More bad news for Nokia

Selling more devices is something Nokia wants to do too. You'd think that as it's bleeding money and laying off staff, it'd be horrified at the timing of Microsoft's announcement: for Nokia, this is the worst possible time for Microsoft to say to the world, "hey! There's a newer, better OS coming and those Lumias won't run it!" Apparently not: Nokia says that everything's just brilliant.

We're not convinced. As Chris Smith writes: "for a company positioning itself as a rival to Apple and Android, to suggest most customers don't care about software upgrades sounds a little naive." But perhaps there's a bigger game being played here: we're increasingly convinced that Microsoft is going to buy the struggling phone maker. Surface says that if OEMs aren't doing enough, Microsoft will do it instead; if that's the case with tablets, it could soon be the case with Windows Phone as well.

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