Microsoft’s Surface: Windows for a Cloud World

After days of carefully calibrated buildup, Microsoft whipped the curtain back from Surface, a pair of Windows tablets that can also serve as laptops, thanks to a built-in kickstand and a screen cover that doubles as a keyboard.

But Microsoft didn’t partner with a hardware vendor to manufacture Surface; instead, it decided to build the tablets in-house. That’s not such a radical leap for the company, considering it also builds the bestselling Xbox and Kinect hands-free controller, but it’s definitely a risky one—its Zune music player, for example, crashed and burned in the marketplace.

As mentioned above, Surface will be available in two flavors. One tablet will run Windows 8 Pro, and rely on a third-generation Intel Core processor. The other will feature Windows RT and run on an ARM processor. Both will feature 10.6-inch screens along with a kickstand and keyboard, but many of the other internal specs vary wildly:

Windows 8 Pro

Weight: 903 g

Thickness: 13.5 mm

Ports: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort Video, 2×2 MIMO antennae

Features: Touch Cover, Type Cover, Pen with Palm Block

Memory: 64 GB, 128 GB

Release Date: General availability of Windows 8. (Although Microsoft has yet to announce an official release date for Windows 8, it’s generally expected that the operating system will arrive in October.)

Windows RT

Weight: 676 g

Thickness: 9.3 mm

Ports: microSD, USB 2.0, Micro HD Video, 2×2 MIMO antennae

Features: Office ‘15’ Apps, Touch Cover, Type Cover

Memory: 32 GB, 64 GB

Release Date: Roughly 90 days after the Windows 8 Pro version.

This, then, is Microsoft’s flagship for battling Apple’s iPad, as well as Google’s Chrome OS and Android. However, some sizable questions remain: how much will each version cost? How good is the battery life? Which stores will sell it?

The answers to those questions—and doubtlessly others—will help determine whether Windows can maintain its longtime dominance over operating systems in a world that’s increasingly mobile and cloud-based. Indeed, the presence of separate Windows RT and Windows 8 versions is a concession to this evolving environment: designed to run on the same ARM processors that currently power a significant portion of mobile devices, Windows RT can’t run desktop software built for x86 machines; instead, all apps need to be downloaded via Microsoft’s app store.

Combine that with Microsoft’s rethinking of the traditional Windows interface: instead of the desktop environment familiar to millions, Windows 8 and Windows RT boot to a Start screen composed of colorful tiles linked to applications—the better to swipe and tap while on the move.

Consumer Confusion

Those additions and alterations could allow Windows to compete more effectively against more lightweight, cloud-centric operating systems. But as one analyst pointed out soon after Microsoft’s June 19 unveiling, all these changes offer the potential for mass consumer confusion.

“More so than Apple or Google, the worst thing that could happen to Microsoft’s RT tablets is Windows 8 on x86,” Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester, wrote in a June 18 corporate blog posting. “Selling x86-based tablets in the same retail channels as Windows RT tablets will confuse consumers and sow discontent if consumers buy x86 and think they’re getting something like the iPad.”

As a result, she added, “Microsoft and its partners need to articulate a compelling strategy for how they will manage consumer expectations in the channel. Consumers aren’t used to thinking about chipsets.”

Microsoft touts that the next versions of Windows are “no compromise,” offering users the power and versatility of previous Windows editions on everything from the most powerful desktops down to extremely lightweight tablets. The new Windows also integrates the cloud more tightly than ever—the baked-in SkyDrive for Windows, or the upcoming cloud apps from third-party developers available via the store.

It remains to be seen, though, whether consumers gravitate toward the new Windows as their operating system of choice for a more lightweight, cloud-centric environment. If they don’t, then Microsoft potentially has another Vista on its hands.


Image: Microsoft