We live in a two/three computer world: a smartphone that’s always with us, a laptop for on-the-go computing, and possibly a desktop for home and professional use. Tablets, since Apple revolutionized the handheld, has always been an accessory device, not a required one. We all need a phone of some sort, and a computer, but not a tablet.

Microsoft is changing that. Can you hear the war drums beating?

Surface, Microsoft’s upcoming tablet computer, isn’t just an ordinary tablet like the iPad or the plethora of Android devices. Surface combines ordinary tablet technology – a capacitive touchscreen with a user interface made to handle it – with an operating system that can just as easily power desktop applications without the need to change them. In effect, Microsoft is bringing the traditional computing experience to a tablet, combining all of the benefits of a tablet with the power and flexibility of a laptop.

Microsoft is able to do this with Surface thanks to three very simple designs: a choice of keyboard covers, two models with either Arm or Intel architecture, and Windows 8 integration. The first is by far the most important; Microsoft introduced two separate keyboards, the Touch Cover and Type Cover, both of which connect to Surface magnetically and draw power directly from the tablet. It acts similarly to Apple’s Smart Cover for the iPad, snapping into place, except that the Touch and Type Cover’s are designed to stay in place and not slide around. The key differentiator is that they are both keyboards, the former a pressure-sensitive model while the latter offers mechanical keys with 1.5mm of keypress distance. Combined with intelligent software and a built-in kickstand directly on Surface, the tablet can instantly turn into a typing device anywhere and at anytime, with the singular exception of a lap.

Second is an option of an Arm-based or Intel-based model, the former offering a smaller 7.3mm frame that’s lighter, thinner, and likely longer lasting (and the RT version of Windows 8), and the latter equipped with the latest Ivy Bridge i5 chipset. Microsoft has been diligently quiet about specifics on the components, but it is clear that using Ivy Bridge the machine will be as powerful as this newest generation of Ultrabooks. Not only does this give Joe consumer the incentive to hold off on any recent Ultrabooks, like the ASUS Transformer Prime or Apple MacBook Air for a tablet that will be equally powerful, it also offers improvements over a traditional laptop, such as tablet battery life, a full capacitive touchscreen, lighter frame and design, and software to handle both forms of computing.

That software is Windows 8, and Microsoft has been so careful not to show it off much at all. Windows 8, available as a public beta but only for computers, is made with two basic UIs, the traditional desktop and the new Metro interface made specifically for tablet use. I wasn’t too impressed with the changes to Windows 8 as a desktop interface, but it follows the same basic principles of a full OS interface. If you want to run an application, so long as it’s made for Windows (what isn’t?), then you’re set. While it’s unclear whether all applications will work immediately on both Surface models or just the x86 model, the point is clear: Windows 8 offers the flexibility of a full OS with the usability of a tablet UI.

To top it all off, Surface is just a means to a greater end. That end? Eliminate the need for laptops forever. Maybe not higher-end desktop replacements, but definitely Ultrabooks and low-end laptops. Schools have been chiming in to get students iPads, but now they can make use of an open platform tablet that comes with a physical keyboard, and won’t be restricted to a single company. Microsoft didn’t lie when they said they aren’t entering the hardware business. The company doesn’t want to; they make the vast majority of their profits on software and services, and it takes years and decades to build an infrastructure for hardware manufacturing. CEO Steve Ballmer said, “We want to light a fire under our 3rd party partners,” and why wouldn’t it? There’s only one way to swing the current 9-1 ratio of iPad versus Android tablet sales, and that’s by offering a full computing experience – from a physical keyboard to a full OS – to tablets. Microsoft is doing just that.

I know I’m holding off on purchasing a new laptop because of Surface. Will you?










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.