Can Microsoft's new tablet challenge the iPad?

July 1, 2012 

We’re entering the era of gadget glut, a time of too many expensive devices competing for our attention. It’s a tough time for Microsoft to be introducing something completely new, and despite the good looks and interesting engineering of the company’s new tablet, called Surface, I’m wondering what it can do to take a sizable chunk out of the iPad market. People sated with tablets from Apple to Android would need a game-changer to switch to a Windows 8 device. But Microsoft has to introduce a tablet not only because of the obvious success of the market niche but because its operating system strategy around Windows 8 is aimed at mobile devices.

Will it work? An operating system that unites everything from smartphones to tablets to notebooks and PCs would be an excellent way to lock in customers. Unlike Apple, Microsoft already has the overwhelming market share advantage in desktop operating systems, so the only combative move would be to declare the tablet space not forfeited by bringing out a machine that out-does the iPad. Bringing customers to it would also drive them to smartphones running the newest version of Windows Phone and bolster the Microsoft ecosystem.

A device for consuming

Or so the thinking must go. From what I’ve seen of Surface, this could be a slick device. I don’t think it’s going to take a big chunk out of iPad sales, but one feature gives you its rationale: The Surface, which was launched at a Los Angeles event in late-June, has a cover that doubles as a keyboard. It’s a thing of beauty – judging from photos, because I haven’t held the device – that not only protects your screen but opens out into a flat keyboard, saving you the extra expense of an external keyboard, which the iPad would require if you wanted to do extensive typing.

But most people do not. People buy tablets to consume media content, from online videos to movies, music and magazines. If you want to use a tablet for writing your novel or putting together a company report, you’ll find yourself yearning for the more sensible notebook option.

Are people looking for a tablet as a gateway to Microsoft Office? If so, Microsoft’s flat keyboard is going to have to prove itself usable day in and day out, a tough task for such a thin tool.

Finding a home

Time will tell, but we have to wait because Microsoft displayed only one of the two models of Surface it intends to distribute, one being a Pro model with a beefier processor, and I can’t tell you much more because details of pricing and availability have not yet been announced. If you think of an iPad tuned up toward Microsoft applications and conceived as a productivity tool, you get what I think Microsoft is after, but my suspicion is that niche is already covered by the various notebooks, ultrabooks and MacBook Airs out there. Surface will have its audience, but I’m skeptical that the tablet format will ever emerge as the best place to get work done.

Meanwhile, we can await with greater interest the release of Windows 8, which will bring a major software design oriented around mobile devices and touch interfaces. Microsoft has to play in this space because the industry is moving there and Surface looks like a clever design. But with Google’s new tablet also in the cards, we’re about to see whether the tablet can find a home in the corporate setting long dominated by Microsoft, or whether tablet sales will continue to be driven by apps and the entertaining content people can consume wherever they are. No one company, not Microsoft, not Apple, is going to acquire a lock across all mobile devices.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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