Microsoft is getting into the hardware business in a big way. In a press conference moments ago, Microsoft unveiled two “Microsoft Surface” Windows touch tablets built and designed by Microsoft itself. The new tablet appears to be thin, lightweight, has two cameras, and most of the perks you’d expect in an iPad-like tablet, but it comes with two big surprises: a pull-out kickstand to prop itself up and a screen cover that doubles as a keyboard.

“What is it? It’s something new. Something different. A whole new family of computing devices from Microsoft,” said Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky. “Surface is a stage for Windows.”

The rumor mill has been running wild since Microsoft hastily threw this press conference together last Thursday. Almost every site believed Microsoft was going to announce a tablet today, but the rumors break down after that. Some believed Xbox or SmartGlass would be involved, while others thought Barnes & Noble might be the manufacturer of a tablet-like device of some kind. It doesn’t appear that anybody realized Microsoft had innovated in the keyboard space.

View pictures of the new Microsoft Surface tablets

Microsoft Surface specs

There are two models, currently. One runs Windows RT (ARM processor) and the other runs Windows 8 Pro (Intel processor, backward compatible with Windows 7 applications). The specs are below.

The new tablets will be between 9.3 and 13.5mm — depending on which model you go for — has a 10.6-inch 16:9 touchscreen with a 720p or 1080p pixel resolution, Gorilla Glass, Microsoft Office, a full-size USB port, and even has a magnetic stylus that sticks to the device.

The pro version will run on Intel Ivy Bridge processors and come with 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. The ARM version will run on a Nvidia processor. 

The Touch Cover

The touch cover has two models: one that is 3mm thick and another that is a bit thicker. It connects to the tablet via Bluetooth and has a built-in accelerometer so that it somehow knows when it is opened as a keyboard and when it’s being used as a cover, presumably to save battery life — yes, your Touch Cover will have a battery.

We’re excited

This is odd news since Microsoft is now putting itself in competition with its own hardware manufacturers — something that it has previously said it would not do. With that said, Microsoft is hardly the first operating system creator to venture into hardware. It has already done so quite successfully with the Xbox and somewhat unsuccessfully with the Zune. Apple makes a living out of tightly pairing its hardware and software, while newer rival Google has partnered with select hardware makers for all of its new OS versions and recently purchased Motorola with the intention of getting into the hardware game. Even Microsoft signed a deal with Nokia last year which makes Nokia the preferred vendor of Windows Phone devices.

Will companies like Toshiba, Acer, Samsung, Asus, HP, and others be upset by this news? Will they all start secretly developing their own operating systems? Only time will tell, but it is definitely important for Microsoft that the Windows 8 launch performs smoothly and excites people. It’s livelihood is riding on this release — a fact that couldn’t be more evident after seeing the Microsoft Surface.

When is it coming?

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know when these tablets will launch, where you’ll be able to buy them, or how much they’ll cost. The Windows RT version will come out when Windows 8 launches, but the Pro version won’t be released until 3 months after the launch later this year, likely putting it into early 2013.