The word is out: Microsoft is building a handsome new tablet for their new Windows 8 operating system. Windows has had several tablet-friendly (well, friendlier) versions since 2000, but this is the first time that they’re converting the entire system into something that will work well with a mobile computer. As a result, Microsoft has also shown off a variety of tablets from partners like Samsung, but they’re taking a different tack by now introducing their own Windows 8 tablet into the fray, chasing their experience in developing hardware, from their own mice and keyboards to the Xbox. It seems that with Surface, Microsoft is opening a full two-front war against with their own OEMs that are producing Windows 8 tablets, but are also tapping Apple on the shoulder to let them know that their iPad isn’t going to be very lonely in this space for long. But does the Surface have what it takes to push Apple out, or does it even matter?
Windows 8 seems to be taking the same approach to tablets that Google did with Android: provide the software and some light hardware specifications and let everyone go at it. This is a markedly different approach than Microsoft executed with Windows Phone in that they essentially designed the phone hardware and told hardware manufacturers to sod off if they want to add ambitious new hardware to the platform. Android has seen success against Apple because partners are creating hardware that can be priced lower and higher than Apple’s single model phone for both value and premium options. Many people own Android phones purely on ‘accident’ because they were free or incredibly cheap. While Microsoft promises that Surface will be competitive with similar devices in its ARM (imagine a smartphone) and x86 (imagine a notebook) configurations, as far as price goes, it might not be the Surface that eats the iPad’s lunch, it may be Microsoft’s partners.
It’s not hard to imagine a future in which people flock to their local Best Buys and ask for a Microsoft surface, but are instead pointed to an LG tablet of lesser specs for a few hundred dollars less that operates in a mostly-identical manner. Sure, the cool kids will know what the Surface is, but many will settle for less because, in reality, it’s all they need. Unlike the Kindle Fire, quality doesn’t necessarily need to be sacrificed in order to get a competitive edge.
But a key question will be whether Windows 8 will expand the tablet space or simply try to consume iPad’s portion, or whether people will buy into Windows 8 at all. Microsoft may be trying to push their 90% PC ownership into 90% tablet ownership, but it isn’t going to take that much of an undercurrent to sabotage their efforts. In much the same way that people cringed at Vista, they may also cringe at Windows 8 and skip out on Microsoft entirely.
The only thing we know for sure at this point is that I want one. But, do I want the ARM or x86 model….