Has an iPad Competitor Surfaced?
This week Microsoft went on the aggressive defense, announcing its new Surface tablets.
Here's an excellent toe-to-toe comparison with the iPad from the Washington Post:
“Screen size: Both versions of the tablet boast 10.6-inch screens, bigger than the iPad’s 9.7-inch display. The company promises that the Surface will have an “HD display,” but hasn’t offered specifics that could be matched up against the iPad’s “Retina display.” CNET reports that the Surface has a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Weight: The RT version is lighter than its counterpart, weighing in at 1.5 pounds rather than 1.9 pounds. Both are heavier than the 1.4 pound iPad (well, the cellular version is 1.46 pounds), but still impressively light.
Casing: Microsoft made a big deal out of its “VaporMg” finish on the case, which is supposed to make the tablet easy to grip. And where the iPad is all smooth aluminum contours, Microsoft has opted for a more angular approach.
Thickness: The RT tablet itself is about iPad-depth at .37 inches thick, while the Windows 8 Pro version is .53 inches thick.
Ports: A point to Microsoft here: both versions of the Surface come with two USB ports (2.0 on the RT version, 3.0 on the Windows 8 Pro model), which also account for the device’s thickness. The need for extra dongles has been a persistent complaint about the iPad, and a major selling point for Android tablets.
Accessories: When Microsoft revealed its candy-colored cover on Monday, it immediately looked like a knock-off of Apple’s Smart Cover. But then, the Redmond, Wash.-based company offered a twist: the cover is the keyboard. The 3mm-thick keyboard also comes in two versions — with a difference in key construction— but both have a touchpad.
Apple, of course, has a whole range of accessories that can go with the iPad including its new Smart Case. But Apple itself doesn’t make a docking keyboard for the iPad in the same way Asus has embraced keyboards for its Transformer Prime, preferring to leave that to third-party manufacturers.
Microsoft also showed off a pen — yes, a stylus — that is included with the Windows 8 version of the tablet and attaches to it magnetically. Plus, the Surface is its own stand, with a built-in kickstand in the back.
Storage: Users can get the Surface with 32GB or 64 GB of memory on the RT tablet; or pick up its big brother with 64 GB or 128 GB. Overall, that’s more memory on offer than the 16GB, 32 GB or 64GB options you have with the iPad.
Connectivity: Microsoft touted a strong WiFi connection on Surface, but didn’t mention any cellular connectivity. The iPad, of course, has a WiFi and cellular option that runs on AT&T or Verizon networks.”
Here’s a great overview from CNET:
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off the event earlier this week with a Redmond red-meat reminder of its dominance with Windows, including the impressive stat that there are a billion PCs running the operating system. “It’s the most flexible general purpose software ever,” he said. Windows 8 with its slick “Metro” interface is the next version due out later this year. Surface is all about extending that dynasty, with its enterprise-grounded power base: “People want portability without compromising PC productivity,” said Ballmer.
Ballmer’s defensive tone continued as he described Microsoft’s history with hardware, saying that the company has often had to push hardware makers to accept new devices. The prime example of this was the mouse, which, at the dawn of Windows, was not an obvious or easy sell. That set up the day’s primary metaphors: the mouse was to Windows 1.0 as the tablet is to Windows 8—the hardware that unlocks (or “surfaces” in the language of the day) the potential of the software.
The hardware launch itself was a nerdfest of specs, material science, and design speak. Perimeter Venting! Palm Blocking! Chamfered Edges! VaporMg! A hinge kickstand that closes like a luxury car door! A slick cover that doubles as a keypad (really worth the exclamation point)! An idiot-proof magnetic attachment for the cover! Clearly, a message of the day was that Microsoft can match– maybe outdo– Apple for obsession with design, fetishistic detail for fetishistic detail. They even featured a video of the designers at work, and displayed slides showing the seven layers of that amazing cover. Fans of those details should check out the full video of the launch here.
For the Surface, Microsoft stakes out a position that Apple would not dare for the iPad: “A tablet that’s a great PC and a great PC that’s a tablet.” Unfortunately, this is where the launch was a little light. There was a brief demo of using Word while on a video conference and a short demo of Adobe Lightroom. But I really need more to see this bold statement proved out. For my money, that’s where the Surface launch had a chance to really break away from the more limited iPad and failed.
Still, it looks pretty awesome. The cover/keyboard is a true breakthrough. And Microsoft clearly is thinking enterprise in its strategy of offering two versions: a thinner version that takes on the iPad, and a thicker, beefier version that is more targeted toward ultra light laptops like the MacBook Air. And the geek-out on the design worked for me: I never before associated Microsoft with Jony Ive-level industrial design, but now I feel I have to give them their props. (Fans of Ive’s design ethic should check out the documentary Objectified, which is great rainy day brain food.)
I think this adds up to Surface becoming an iPad killer in the enterprise, especially for conservative CIOs who are loathe to add another OS to support. It’s not clear whether Microsoft is arming up fully for this assault. Initially, They will sell it in Microsoft stores and online, but no word on whether Microsoft’s vaunted enterprise sales teams will have this in their portfolio. But the big question is whether this is a new Microsoft-only hardware line like the Xbox or will Redmond license the design specs to Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Acer to bring it to the masses. I am betting the former, and that may limit Surface’s penetration into the enterprise.