Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ tablet announcement actually reveals very little [updated]

Microsoft still don’t really ‘get’ product launches, but they’re getting better at it. Last night’s impromptu Microsoft Surface tablet announcement was a change for the company. Watching Steve Ballmer take to the stage in a very measured, very level and very humble manner to discuss the new Microsoft Surface product in basic terms was a revelation. It was mature. It was behaviour as expected from a CEO.

Many of the commentators observing last night’s announcement parroted the same line – that Microsoft was having to do its own tablet in order to ‘set the standard’ for the Windows 8 experience – to ensure that its hardware partners produce high quality gear that doesn’t compromise the performance of its tablet-focused OS.

Microsoft's first tablet - 'Surface'
Microsoft’s first tablet – ‘Surface’

If it is a standard setter – what exactly is the standard? Ballmer again said there would be ‘no compromises’. Yet for all the hype, Microsoft appears to have shown off little more than a magnesium shell, with Corning Gorilla Glass 2.0 on the front. We received no real tech specs to work from.

Microsoft did tell us that the Surface ARM model will run on a NVidia Tegra processor, but curiously didn’t specify whether will be quad-core or dual-core, or its clock speeds. Its probably safe to speculate that it will be the quad-core Tegra 3 or the newer version rumoured to be on the horizon. Why this wasn’t detailed is a bit confusing, given Microsoft’s penchant for spec posturing with its software, and its video game hardware, Xbox.

The same story goes for the x86 Intel model, the Windows 8 Pro Tablet. Again, we don’t know if this is going to be a Core i7 (highly unlikely due to power consumption), some new variant of the Intel Atom (possible, given this is a low power netbook chipset), its new hybrid ‘Clover Trail’ chipsets (the most popular theory) or some hither-to-unknown Intel variant that remains secret. Or even a whole product range that includes several chip variants?

The processor speed war is over to an extent, Apple has proven that with its moderate A5X chipset upgrades (ARM based), usually lagging bleeding edge by about 3-6 months.

All of this remains moot. The real stat that is incredibly important for mobile device users is battery life. The reason Apple stays behind the bleeding edge is to maintain the 8-12 hour battery life that it has made industry standard.

The other spec, and one that also drastically affects battery life (and user experience), is the screen. Yes, we know the Surface will have a 16:9 ratio, 10.6" (27cm) screen, but we have no idea what resolution it runs at.

Apple has been pushing its proprietary ‘Retina Display’, marketing speak for 2048×1536. It has also recently rolled this out to its MacBook Pro laptop. Again, we have to assume that Microsoft is looking at low HD resolutions and higher (most likely 1366×768 or the 16:9 ratio 1280×720). Ballmer may well be struggling with suppliers to get some kind of 1080P screen on the device.

[update 3pm: some outlets are now reporting that the Intel x86 Pro tablet will be 1080P – although this is unconfirmed. The ARM edition is still unknown]

No small effort, given the next highest screen res on a tablet after iPad 3 was the Asus Transformer Prime’s 1280×800. To be in Apple’s ballpark, 1920×1080 should be minimum. That is a big ask.

However, matching Apple’s specs is not a win for anyone but Apple, as it is for all incumbents in business. You have to be better, more disuptive.

Microsoft has these assets to pull on – at E3 they announced the media interface Smartglass, a platform that will integrate Windows Phone, Xbox and (presumably) Windows RT/8. This means users can do things like ‘throwing’ images, music or films from one device to another, effectively instantly streaming without pausing the media, copying or connecting cables.

Apple doesn’t have this capability – yet. It is a huge, and potentially disruptive, market leading technology from Microsoft that is a real point of difference.

Instead Microsoft used last night to brag about daft additions such as the Surface being 0.1mm thinner than an iPad. Or the fact that the Surface has a kickflap to stand it up, and comes with a keyboard (hmmmm… starting to look and feel like a laptop again there guys?) – both features Apple already offers as peripherals.

There were also no announcements concerning Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G support – we still don’t know if Surface will need a mobile carrier, or if any carriers are even on board – could they be additional retailers?

What about cameras – surely that’s been finalised? I can see one visible on the front in Microsoft’s PR material, but isn’t this the company that just bought Skype? Why not show off some awesome Skype-Windows 8 integration in amongst all the hardware hype (or lack thereof)? What about combining this with Smartglass – HD video calling on a 60-inch TV appeals to me, and probably to businesses too.

Atleast show off some of the apps or products being developed for the Windows 8 eco-system that Microsoft has been endlessly hyping – show them running on your hardware, the way it should be. Hell, even show some of the fun applications developed from the original Surface Table device revealed a few years ago?

Another worrying fact is that we have no prices yet. Sinofsky said in the conference that the device will ‘be priced like comparable tablets’ and that the Pro x86 intel edition would match Ultrabooks.

As i’ve mentioned before, Microsoft is so far out of the game, they’ll need probably need to operate a loss leader strategy. Surface may need to be sold at around £250, with a sacrificed margin for a year or two. Its that much of a dire situation.

As for the pro-edition being priced comparably to Ultrabooks – that is a shocker. Ultrabooks cost between £600-1000. Anyone that wants buy a tablet that is being positioned as a high powered laptop should just buy…. a laptop? It is up against a superior iPad 3 device that costs half that price. Attach a keyboard to that for £45. Office is also coming for the iPad, Photoshop is already there.

The other shocker (for me) of the announcement is the fact that Microsoft will not be selling the tablet in physical stores (outside of its few Microsoft Stores in the US – there are none in the UK). Ballmer announced that it will be available for sale online only.

This, for me, is near suicidal.

Tablets, more than any other form of computing hardware (including mobile phones), need to be physically demonstrated to customers. Surface needs a hands on tactile demonstration; users need to be able to swipe their hands around and PLAY with the device.

This is not just true for Microsoft attempting to convert users from Apple, its needed to convert Windows 7 enterprise users to the idea of a tablet in the workplace ("is the experience superior? Let me give it a go…"), it is most importantly, key to bring in new users that have never used a tablet at all.

How many readers ‘didn’t get’ the iPad until they sat around and played with it?

I certainly didn’t back in 2010, and I owned the latest and greatest iPhone at the time. I’m still not a complete tablet convert, but after playing with it over the years, I get its appeal to other users.

If you can’t put your tablet in their hands and let them fiddle with it in a physical retail setting, like the Apple Store, the Windows Surface will pass through the market unseen, like a ship passing in the night on a foggy Thames.

I get the impression that Microsoft hasn’t decided whether its ‘all in’ on the tablet front, and is still trying to please too many other divisions, OEM partners and legacy products to actually go out and take the radical step to move its business past PC.

I compare it to Windows’ ongoing 32-bit and 64-bit support on the desktop. 32-bit should’ve died with Windows XP or Vista. Support those that remain on that platform, but explain that the next operating system is 64-bit only. If you don’t want to upgrade your computer, or your company’s waiting for a hardware refresh date, we’ll look after you on the legacy OS. Microsoft didn’t, in order to protect its vested interests – and this time they are doing it across x86-ARM.

Why not simply develop another Windows arm (no pun intended), Windows Tablet, run it as such, and continue making a desktop version, Windows 8. Two separate operating systems, like Apple’s iOS and OSX Lion.

Software and features can straddle the two platforms, but they are inherently different platforms. Don’t pretend PC and Post-PC can be merged together happily. Apple has shown that users aren’t willing to put up with sub-par experiences on their more intimate, personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

The majority of those on our planet aren’t computer boffins. In fact, even those that are boffins are pretty tired of an exhausting PC experience. The iPad is their break from Windows, from work. Microsoft needs to change that perception.

If a shop attendant needs to stand there explaining quad core processors, Surface ARM vs x86 (and the two versions of WIndows 8), RAM, Microsoft Office (on RT but not Windows 8 Pro) and the keyboard choices on offer, while across the road an Apple attendant will simply place an iPad in the customer’s hand and let them play with some photos, Microsoft will lose.

When Apple staff talk to the common-folk, they use terms like ‘retina display – its the same resolution as your eyes’, its ‘faster than ever, perfect for movies’, and ‘its fun, play Angry Birds’. They win.

Whether Apple consumers buy their product from inside the store or online is irrelevant, they’ve experienced the product in person. Microsoft looks like it won’t be giving the consumer that opportunity.

‘Microsoft Week’ continues with tomorrow night’s unspecified Windows Phone 8 announcement.

To read further expert reaction to Microsoft’s new tablet, click here.

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