Will The Microsoft Surface Tablet Redefine Mobile Computing?

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Hands-On With The Microsoft Surface, Inside And Out

Microsoft just took the wraps off the all new Microsoft Surface. Even though the name is familiar this is an entirely new product. Simply put, the Surface is a Windows 8 tablet. But it seems so much more. In fact, perhaps I’m still a little drunk on Microsoft Kool-Aid, but the Surface seems like the next generation of mobile computing. While Surface might not kill the iPad, it might revive Microsoft.

To be clear, the Surface is Microsoft’s hardware. This is a not a Dell or HP tablet running Microsoft’s software. Microsoft clearly designed this tablet to best showcase Windows 8. The tablet itself seems fantastic. Compared to the iPad, it’s a bit utilitarian with hard lines, full size I/O ports, and heat vents. But it also seems like a serious tablet rather than a plaything.

The hardware doesn’t matter, though. Remember? The spec is dead. Microsoft wisely talked up the Surface’s capabilities and design today more than listing the computing specs. It’s a PC, they said on stage today over and over again. Sure, this is a tablet, but it’s also a PC — an acronym synonymous with work, power, and boring desktop software. Microsoft clearly built this tablet, or rather, PC, to give Windows 8 a fighting chance. Or, to put it another way, Microsoft built this product because Microsoft doesn’t trust its hardware partners.

“When you pick this up, you understand it’s high quality,” said Panos Panay, the Surface’s chief designer at today’s event. Microsoft has never made hardware for Windows before. It never had to. But now, as the traditional PC makers are retreating and dragging Windows with them, Microsoft clearly picked up the standard and raced back to the front line. I’ve yet to touch the Surface myself although it’s the first Windows device I’ve coveted since the Dell Adamo XPS.

I’m in love with my iPad. I use it everyday, and thanks to the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard, I’m moderately productive on it; I’m still at only 80% capacity, though. I just love the tablet form factor. I’ve hesitated replacing my iPad with a MacBook Air because of the touchscreen apps. I actually enjoy browsing Reddit more on the iPad thanks to Alien Blue. Flipboard brings me a ton of content I normally wouldn’t get. And the cooking apps — oh my, I love me some cooking apps. That said, I still cannot construct and publish a post to TechCrunch on an iPad. But I could on the Surface.

Laptops have dominated the mobile scene for as long as there was a mobile scene. Tablets have yet to prove themselves as serious productivity devices thanks to their limited computing platforms. But this is Windows. With Office. In a tablet. With a stunning keyboard cover. Love it or hate it, Windows and Office know how to get things done.

The early hands-on reports are praising the Surface. The tech crowd loves the high-end feel and the responsive system. There are still a lot of unknowns at this point. Never mind the Surface’s price: How is the keyboard during extended sessions? How hot does it get after 5 hours? With that, how long does the battery last? Does it have 3G/4G? Is it built for the enterprise crowd? Most importantly, will developers embrace Metro?

The iPad’s strength comes from the sheer number of 3rd party apps available through the App Store. Apple lured a crazy number of developers to its platform through the promise of profit-sharing and a fair distribution environment. Microsoft isn’t reinventing app development with the Surface. The tablet runs Windows after all. It is the most dominant computing platform on Earth. At this early stage it seems like a smart move for a developer to jump on the Metro bandwagon. Even if the Surface crashes and burns, there will be dozens of other Windows 8 tablets from the normal players.

To me the Surface doesn’t seem like a serious iPad contender but rather a reference design or even a halo device. When released later this year ARM models will likely start around $400-$600 and x86 models will hit closer to $1,000. Even though it will likely never outsell the iPad, the Surface sets a clear standard for HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and Asus. It shows the rest of the industry the proper way to make a Windows 8 tablet. As a halo device, it’s essentially designed to draw attention to Microsoft and Windows 8 like the Corvette does for Chevy.

Microsoft hasn’t been hip since Windows XP. Windows 7 barely makes up for Windows Vista. The fate of Windows Mobile rests on a struggling Finnish company. The Zune was never loved. Bing is a clone. No one uses Hotmail. I still don’t exactly know the benefit of Windows Live. The company’s lone shinning star is a 7-year old game system. Microsoft has been just surviving over the last decade. As much as Windows itself needs a killer device like the Surface, Microsoft the company needs a desperate shot of credibility.

Like most people, I do not have a dog in this fight. I’m not an ignorant fanboy, blindly cheering on a random company. I don’t care what company wins the mobile or desktop wars as long as the consumer ultimately wins. The last few years Apple has produced the industry leading devices. And now, once again with the Surface, Microsoft has a champion worthy of praise.