There is no question now that tablets are the next wave in the evolution of the computer. From niche product that didn't quite satisfy, to the market defining iPad, on to Android pretenders that broke free from the Apple ecosystem and now to the latecomer, Microsoft, the tablet is changing what computing is and how we interact with it.
The Microsoft Surface home and pro editions were announced on June 18 in Los Angeles. Two tablets that will use the new-look Windows 8 operating system, that offer a kickstand and a cover that doubles as a keyboard. Both have 10.6 inch screens, are built with a rugged material called VaporMg and fronted by Gorilla glass to protect the HD display. Each has impressive specs (available here in all their geeky glory) and the pro version includes a digital pen that allows for hyper-sensitive input. But the question that really was on the mind of the tech press was "Can Microsoft really produce a product that would be as cool as an Apple product?"
Microsoft and Apple are forever linked. One is what the other isn't.
Microsoft was the first dominant software company. It provided a uniformity of control that made business and personal computing a truly revolutionary force in our economy. It changed our workday and then our home life.
Apple was the challenger that insisted that it could 'think different' and make the computer cool. Apple controlled the software and the hardware to present a singular experience.
Microsoft let other manufacturers drive the design and feel of the hardware, concentrating instead on the software allowing for customization to fit the most basic beige box for sending emails and surfing the web to the powerhorse PCs that are built to handle the rigors of data analysis or multi-player gaming. Microsoft is boring but powerful and Apple makes products that just work well and make their customers feel cool. So the line has been drawn over the years.
How does it feel?
So, was it accomplished? Did Microsoft make a must-have (ok, really want) device? Microsoft has had both successes and failures in its hardware ventures. Everyone can agree that the Xbox is a huge success once it got past buggy first versions, but do you remember the Kin phone? Even their well-reviewed Zune player didn't ever break out to come anywhere close to rivalling the iPod. The Windows Phone has gone through several versions and is challenging (with RIM's Blackberry) for third place after Google's Android and Apple's iPhone.
In my opinion, yes. This looks like a beautiful device inspired by of all things, the book.
Designer Panos Panay explained the inspiration. "We designed this organically like a book. We wanted it to feel just like that. This spine feels like a book. You'll hold it like a book. It will feel like it's another book when you carry it with books."
The technology is impressive, both the hardware and the new friendly Windows OS, but it is that basic feel of the product in the hand that makes a product an emotional purchase. Apple products are pretty, they are user-friendly, have the specs to impress, but mostly the products feel right in your hands. Only a select few at this time know how the Surface will perform in that crucial way.
Frustratingly, Microsoft didn't follow the Apple lead with announcing products and having pricing and availability right from launch, so it will be a few months before consumers will have a chance to weigh in. It will be interesting to follow this big stakes competition, but it is a sure bet that the tablet is now the center of attention.