Microsoft is getting into the PC and tablet hardware business, raising far more questions than answers at the announcement.
Microsoft took one chapter from Apple's playbook: the product was developed in Stygian secrecy. And the product is ambitious enough almost to define its own category, the way the iPhone and iPad did. But there the similarities with an Apple announcement end. Apple has all the particulars nailed down at announcement time.
Microsoft didn't say how much the Surface will cost; didn't say when it will ship; and didn't mention carrier connectivity. Time's Harry McCracken easily came up with 23 questions, off the top of his head, that Microsoft's Surface announcement raised (here's the press release).
The company will be manufacturing tablets in two versions. The Windows 8 RT Surface tablet uses an Nvidia chip and has a limited edition of Office baked-in; The Windows 8 Pro Surface tablet features Intel's Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor. It will run a full version of Office, but that software will not be not included. Number of cores was not specified for either model. The RT will be available first, presumably alongside Windows 8 in October. The Pro model will ship 90 days later.
Both models have 10.6-inch displays; the technology and resolution(s) were not revealed. For both models you can get one of two covers, one of which has touch sensitivity and a primitive keyboard, while the other boasts a real keyboard.
Price will matter immensely to the acceptance of these devices. We have to believe that Microsoft is smart enough to figure this out, and not price the RT model much above the iPad, if at all. This is all that Microsoft had to say about pricing: "Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC."
So Microsoft just queered Intel's multi-billion-dollar push to establish the Ultrabook as the next thing in PCs -- the press release calls Surface "the ultimate stage for Windows." Microsoft may have burned bridges with partners -- Dell, HP, Acer, and all the other OEMs -- that have been 30 years in the building.
Refrigerators, toasters, and the enterprise
In the absence of much hard information out of Microsoft (the disclosed specs are minimal in the extreme), or any real ability to lay hands on the devices, industry watchers' opinions on the Surface are all over the map. Some, like Ron Miller, writing for IT Knowledge Exchange, agree with Tim Cook's recent characterization of Windows 8 as attempting to merge a refrigerator with a toaster. Whereas Wayne Rash, writing in eWeek.com, calls the Surface "a true iPad alternative for enterprises," and Computerworld's Preston Gralla agrees.
The Surface could be very attractive to businesses. Windows 8 demands no great learning curve, and the promise of software compatibility from PC to tablet to phone has got to be attractive. Microsoft will almost certainly provide tools for enterprise rollout and management of the devices, something that Apple under Steve Jobs would never do. (Tim Cook is a bit of an unknown quantity on the subject of the enterprise.) Nothing to do but stay tuned.