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A clean slate: Why the Microsoft Surface could come out on top

microsoft surface side windows 8 tabletMicrosoft has become that one friend who shows up late to your party, tipsy, and then goes out of their way to let everyone know they’ve arrived. Windows Phone arrived long after iOS and Android, and despite Microsoft pouring mountains of cash into the endeavor, it has still failed to grab a large market share. Even the well-hyped Nokia Lumia 900, the debutante at the Windows Phone ball, didn’t gain much traction (this is likely its parent company consistently losing money and talent).

With its new Surface tablet, Microsoft will take another swing at mobile, but not the same way. Unlike Apple, it will embrace business. Unlike Android, it will produce the hardware in house and set the bar high for partners. And unlike either one, it will embrace familiar frameworks to entice developers. By learning from others’ mistakes and adjusting its approach, Microsoft may just give the Surface the edge needed to leapfrog Android and compete with the iPad.

Not another free for all

Most companies adopt either a closely intertwined hardware and software approach, (iOS), or start with an OS and leave the hardware to developers (Android). With Windows Phone, Microsoft targeted a halfway point between the Google and Apple approaches: Windows Phone runs on devices from many manufacturers, but the software is consistent. This contrasts with iOS being solely on Apple devices, and Android coming wrapped in many, many manufacturer flavors.

android versions honeycomb jelly bean ice cream sandwichOn tablets, Google’s open approach has hindered it. There are a few strong Android tablets out there now, but it has taken a while. Part of the blame rests on Google for dragging its feet on the OS with Honeycomb, which didn’t function well on larger screens. I used a Motorola Xoom last year, and quite frankly I could have had a better time with a Moto Droid, a magnifying glass and a liberal amount of imagination. The first few iterations of Android tablets failed to excite. The Kindle Fire did well because Amazon – not Google – figured out how to make it attractive to people (using it as a device to sell more of the content consumers were used to buying).

Setting the bar high

Microsoft put itself under some scrutiny when it announced it was releasing a branded tablet. After all, it is primarily a software company, and it’s generally not a good idea to agitate your partners. Although it seems like Microsoft gave hardware makers a finger-based gesture, this approach could pay off for them, too. Microsoft may have learned from Android’s flawed transition to tablets. Theoretically, any hardware company could release a Windows 8 tablet, and undoubtedly, many will. In going first, Microsoft is showcasing what Windows 8 can do as a tablet OS. And who better to do that than the very company that designed the software?

Google recently took this approach and launched the Nexus 7 to high praise. But this came more than a year after the release of the first Android tablets. Competitively priced and in the debated 7-inch screen range, it runs a “pure” version of Android. As will the Surface. The difference: The Surface will be the first Windows 8 tablet, and is attempting to set a standard. Google set the bar high more than a year after it positioned Android as a tablet operating system. Hardware companies like Motorola and HTC will inevitably have to play catch up, whereas Windows 8 tablet makers will already have a benchmark for features, usability and design.

The business factor

The iPad has made some strides into the working world, and it has shown up in some interesting places. But a business tablet it ain’t; and Microsoft may have something to do with that. Office isn’t out on the iPad yet, and maybe it never will be, but you can bet it will be optimized for the Surface. Android doesn’t offer much more than the iPad in terms of business support, either. They both support Exchange accounts and VPN (which doesn’t sound like a huge deal now, but it was). Microsoft has the upper hand with enterprise support, and this could make the Surface much more attractive to businesses – many of which buy in bulk.

surface tablet ports microsoft tablet usb 3.0 hdmiAnother plus for business users is that the Surface contains more PC elements than most tablets on the market today. The keyboard cover is presumably an extra add-on, but since the launch Microsoft has strongly implied that it’s a very important component. Connectivity is a big plus too – the Surface has a USB 3.0 port and HDMI out, meaning greater options for the lucrative accessory market.

Developers, developers, developers

Running Windows 8 gives developers an easier time to write apps for the device. HTML, CSS and JavaScript apps can be run for the Metro using well-established .NET frameworks, and this provides an easier path to getting apps out there. It’s easier to entice people to code for something they’re already familiar with. Existing Windows 7 programs will run on it too – although how well they’ll translate to a touch-based interface remains to be seen; but I am willing to bet the Surface app sphere grows very rapidly after launch.

A swipe at success

Microsoft made a huge gamble by directly competing with close hardware partners. But if it has learned anything from Google, it’s that a little direction can definitely be a good thing. The Windows world is about choice – and no doubt that’ll come in time – but in this day and age, product launches need to wow the world; and sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.