Microsoft Windows president Steven Sinofsky and Surface general manager Panos Panay make their pitch.
At 9:00 this morning, Pacific time, Microsoft’s future goes on sale. The first Surface tablet, Microsoft’s dramatic foray into the hardware business, is available for pre-order starting today. It will be available for purchase in stores starting October 26. With its release, Microsoft instantly becomes the third major player in the tablet market, a market where it is taking a fundamentally different approach than its rivals Apple and Google.
At a small event at its Redmond headquarters on Monday, Microsoft at last announced pricing and availability for the highly anticipated Surface for Windows RT tablet — the 32 GB base model will cost $499, or $599 with a Touch Cover. But, more interestingly, Microsoft offered a look into its thought process. It took reporters behind the scenes, into the top secret facility where the Surface was imagined and developed. It showed off the CNC mills and 3D printers where it fast prototyped builds. It handed around reference early designs made from plastic, and even cardboard. It described how the Surface was inspired by the Moleskine notebook, and why it decided to opt out of the high density display arms race.
Much of this was carefully crafted–even as it was shockingly unscripted for a press event from a major company. Microsoft certainly attempted to drive home a message: everything about the Surface is considered, and represents refinement after refinement. It used clearly rehearsed messaging. Just as Apple always punches home the message that its devices are “great” or even “insanely great,” Microsoft again and again hammered home the point that the Surface is a “perfect” product. (Note to Microsoft: nothing is perfect. )
But it also gave much away, sometimes inadvertently, that hints at how it views the market, and the market’s evolution. Notably, Android was almost an afterthought. When Microsoft Windows president Steven Sinofsky first began describing the space, he talked about Andriod tablets. And then? In the hours that followed, almost nothing. When the company talked tablets, aside from two or possibly three mentions of the Kindle Fire, the only product from a competitor mentioned was the iPad. And the iPad came up again and again and again.
In short: the iPad is in Microsoft’s head. Which is interesting, because when it came time to develop its own tablet, Microsoft went with a fundamentally different strategy than its competitors have.
Google and Apple are pursuing a strategy where the tablet and the phone are essentially variations of each other, running the same operating system, while the desktop is a different system that uses another. (Oh, you forgot about Google’s Chrome OS? That’s okay. Google’s real operating system is the Web.)
Microsoft’a approach flips this. Microsoft’s tablet and desktop share a common operating system, while it is the phone that runs a different OS–although even Windows Phone 8 is based on the same architecture as Windows 8. Microsoft seems to have decided that the tablet is the gateway between mobile and desktop. And Surface RT is the ultimate manifestation of this.
It runs a stripped-down version of Windows 8, Microsoft’s next generation operating system, without the desktop. But it is the same operating system, and although it lacks that traditional desktop experience, clearly this is Windows and many of the apps that are core to that experience–Mail, Internet Explorer, People, the Windows Store–run natively. It is given to gestures and sports a remarkably touch-friendly screen. But it also has a cover that doubles as a keyboard, a USB port, and works with a wide range of other devices like printers and external hard drives and it will even charge up your phone. It other words, is not just a bigger phone. It is truly in-between. Sinofsky drove this point home with a particularly effective point.
“I’ve used a lot of tablets, and this is not a tablet, but it’s the best tablet I’ve ever used,” he said. “I’ve used a lot of notebooks and laptops, and this is not a notebook or a laptop. But it’s also the very best laptop I’ve ever used.”
And then there is the logic of developing its own tablet. Microsoft says that it wanted the hardware to be the ultimate expression of its software. You could think of this Surface for Windows RT tablet as reference design for other manufacturers to follow, but it’s more than that. It really is fundamentally different. It is the expression of not just software, but ambition.
The very edge of the Surface is perhaps the best example of this. Microsoft showed off all sorts of iterations it went through before it settled on its final design–a design which changed even in between the June 18 Surface announcement and today. Following its public debut, Microsoft redesigned the chamfer, or edge bezel, to add a 3 mm offset to make it more grip-able. You can spend hours analyzing the Touch Cover or the molded magnesium body or the battery, but that 3 mm chamfer, that final little tweak to the hardware, seemed key to understanding the entire thought process behind the device.
A big question about Surface has been its cover / keyboard, the Touch Cover. At no point during any of the demos Microsoft held has it let journalists actually try out a working the Touch Cover. But at the event on Monday, it finally let outsiders try its keyboard, deep in the heart of the Surface lab. And it works. It was responsive and impressive and, well, weird. Keys fired well, but other aspects, like the track pad or pressing keyboard combinations, felt odd. It was neither purely touch, nor purely mechanical. It was something else entirely, like Surface itself.
The base model, a 32 GB device, will cost $499 and does not include a Touch Cover. You can get one with a Touch Cover for $599. Microsoft is also offering a 64 GB Surface, with Touch Cover, for $699. Touch Covers are available separately in five colors (black, white, magenta, cyan and red) for $120 each. Microsoft is also offering Type Covers, a slightly thicker version of its cover, with movable physical keys, for $130. All are available for preorder today and will be available from Microsoft’s online and retail stores on October 26.
Both Surface RT devices have NVIDIA T30 processors with 2 GB of RAM, both front and back side 720p HD cameras, a microSDXC card slot, USB port, two WiFi antennas, and a 31.5 W-h battery. It has a 10.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display, and weighs 1.5 pounds.
This is Microsoft’s vision of the future. It is also the most ambitious new tablet to hit the market since the iPad. It is a fundamental re-think of what the tablet should be. You can order it today. Or not. And that’s what really matters. Because while Microsoft, or Google, or Apple, can show us what they think the future will look like, it is we who decide how it will actually play out. Now, it’s decision time.