Microsoft on Monday revealed a family of super-thin tablets called Microsoft Surface to compete against Apple's iPad and to extend the lifetime of Windows, its flagship product of 30 years.
The launch is a concession that the tablet will likely become the workhorse of the trillion-dollar information technology industry, a radical demotion of the desktop computer. "We’ve ushered in a new era of cloud computing and embraced mobility," CEO Steve Ballmer said at the event. Microsoft has positioned the Surface family of touchscreen devices as a fundamental part of interacting with its next-generation operating system.
Windows has "proven to be the most flexible software ever created," CEO Steve Ballmer said. "Today we want to add another piece to that Windows story." But Ballmer wanted to tell a story as much about Microsoft's hardware as the software. He positioned the Surface tablets as essential pieces of the new Windows, as important to Windows 8 as the mouse was to the original Windows. It's an unambiguous admission that the traditional desktop PC era is over.
Microsoft did not reveal the pricing or delivery date for the Surface tablets. The press release says suggested pricing will be revealed closer to availability and that it is "expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC." The timing of the announcement puts it squarely between Apple's WWDC, where only new laptop hardware was annoucned, and Google's I/O conference next week.
Microsoft's decision to build these tablets itself is a departure from its historical reliance on hardware partners like HP, Dell and others. Microsoft has to get the Surface tablets exactly right. Its traditional partners will have a hard time building tablets as compelling.
Both tablets demonstrated Monday were 10.6-inch tablets. There's an ARM version for Windows RT in 32GB and 64GB models and an Intel version for Windows 8 Pro with 64GB and 128GB models. The new Touch Cover outdoes Apple's iPad Smart Cover with a multitouch keyboard and trackpad that's so thin that it serves as a screen cover as well. This allows for a more desktop-like computing experience to take advantage of Windows 8's legacy OS capabilities. Microsoft also demonstrated a precise stylus for hand-drawn input.
"We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when every aspect of the experience, hardware and software, are considered together," Ballmer said.
Microsoft Surface was announced in 2007 as the company's first multi-touch interface. It was demonstrated as a way of manipulating photos, but the interface was the size of a table. These multi-touch smarts have now been brought not only to new flagship tablets but to the keyboard and trackpad on the Touch Cover as well.
Microsoft revealed the Surface tablets at a neon-glowing techno-fashion show at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.
The run-up to this announcement was bizarre. On Friday, Microsoft announced a mystery event in Los Angeles the following Monday. It didn't even specify a time or venue until 10 a.m. Monday morning. By then, rumors and vague reports had already shored up the idea that Microsoft was preparing a tablet of its own. An early rumor suggested that Barnes & Noble was involved, but that was debunked prior to the announcement.
It's going to be a busy week for Microsoft, as there's a Windows Phone event scheduled in San Francisco on Wednesday.