Microsoft unveiled the new Surface this evening at an exclusive press-only event in Hollywood. It was presented as a tablet, but the term ultrabook was thrown around a few times. Surface is clearly a product aimed at fusing the laptop and tablet worlds and there are many aspects to be impressed about. It’s unique keyboard cover comes to mind. However, it doesn’t really strike me as a tablet. It seems to be more of a very thin and lightweight laptop with a touchscreen. And, maybe that is the intent.
A Tablet Suitable for Creating
I have written in the past week about how tablets are optimized for content consumption and the iPad’s usability for content creation is awkward. Microsoft is clearly taking this challenge head-on with Surface. It attempts to blend the engagement and content consumption features of a tablet without sacrificing the content creation features resident in full PCs. It will also ship with a complementary version of Microsoft Office which is a standard for content creation. “Portable, elegant, engaging, powerful,” would have been my recommended tag-line.
Conspicuously absent from the presentation were battery life, release date and pricing. On the pricing front, they did mention that the higher end Pro model would be priced comparable to an ultrabook. It is clear that Surface is no Kindle Fire. It’s designed to be an elegant workhorse of computing portable enough to use for entertainment. That is a clear niche. As Seth Rosenblatt on the CNET real-time event blog commented, “If you’ve got an iPad and must use a 3rd party keyboard, this might be a very attractive alternative.” Do we really need three devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone)? Well right now the answer is yes. Fusing the laptop and tablet is the most likely way to get back to two.
The other gap appears to be that Surface will be WiFi only. Mobility is clearly defined in part by light weight and comfortable ergonomics. It also requires solid WiFi capabilities. However, a cellular data connection is also a key mobility feature set. As more computing moves to a cloud environment, an always connected option is an important feature.
The current data available for product specifications don’t shed too much more light on what you will get. There is a cool video and a sparse spec sheet which is included here.
Where is the Consumer Angle?
The clear trend in mobility is that consumers are driving demand. Without consumer uptake you get the BlackBerry Playbook, the Cisco Cius, the HP Touchpad. All discontinued. The iPad took off because of the great consumer entertainment apps. The Kindle Fire sparked interest by its close link to consumer oriented content consumption and link to Amazon’s ecommerce offerings. Oh, and it’s low price point. A very important consumer consideration.
The keyboard is nice, particularly for work usage, but what is the driver that makes Surface a must-have for consumers? It certainly won’t be price. Xbox integration would be an obvious plus. It has a large, dedicated following and already is a leading consumer content delivery system that goes well beyond games. All Things D reported in March that media consumption on the Xbox now outpaces gaming. It seems like a miss not to have Xbox integration to give Surface more of a consumer hook. No doubt time to market is a driver in that omission.
Microsoft Surface’s Impact on the Enterprise
I don’t see much impact on the enterprise at this point. Surface won’t be released until later this year. When it does, it will require a learning curve for users due to the Metro interface and radically different application navigation (EdgeLens Mobility Guru @johnkelvie has more on this in Metro: Microsoft Swings for the Fences). Besides, people are comfortable with their iPads.
The Consumerization of IT that is driving new devices into the enterprise. Enterprise IT is not out looking to find new devices for employees. IT departments are now adopting Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies for employees so a consumer driver is critical. What we also know is that Microsoft does not yet have the developer community to match the Apple iOS ecosystem. Consumer and business users alike will weigh app availability and support in their purchase decisions.
What is probably more important is that Microsoft now has a dynamic hardware platform in which to optimize it’s Windows RT / Metro software. We need look no further than Microsoft’s partnership with Nokia to understand the risks of relying on a third party hardware manufacturer for your mobile software success. Even Google decided to buy Motorola to better compete with Apple’s innovation.
The Surface announcement is a bold move by Microsoft and should provide a foundation along with Metro to become a legitimate competitor in the mobile marketplace. Don’t forget that Microsoft has a track record of coming from behind to become a market share leader. Internet Explorer. Xbox. MS SQL. It has also had its share of misses as we all know.
My read today: Surface is more ultrabook than tablet. What do you think? Tablet or Ultrabook? Foundation for a successful assault on the mobile market or the next Xune? Make your prediction below.