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Scratching the Surface: The uncertain future of Microsoft’s tablet

Microsoft surface black tablet closed offMonday’s clandestine launch ceremony for its new Surface tablet ignited Internet debate in a way seldom seen for other product launches for the company. This viral buzz is well earned: Surface is both a bold new direction for Microsoft and the most serious threat so far to the dominance of Apple’s iPad. However, there is quite a bit of bad with the good, and several unknowns will ultimately determine the Surface’s success or failure.

The good

Surface seems to be a significant, positive step for Microsoft for a number of reasons.

Aggressiveness - From the perspective of this Apple fanboy, Surface seems to be Microsoft’s boldest statement in memory. Microsoft is making a big bet on tablet computing. Interface design decisions, the introduction of the Surface, and the company’s brash disregard for hardware partners indicate that a tablet-like experience isn’t just a direction Microsoft will pursue in the future, it may be the direction.

Striking, conversation-fomenting advertising - Surface is also a rallying cry to the Microsoft faithful, as is reinforced by the video which accompanied the product’s launch. Sharp, futuristic, imposing, even, these ads are more confident and forward-thinking than those for Microsoft products. They had me waiting for a Christopher-Nolan-esque BRAAAAAAAAAM or the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey to enter the frame. This brief intro video, as much as anything else, has triggered conversations about Microsoft in my social circle that haven’t occurred in the past.

The Keyboards - Microsoft’s powerful intro video puts a lot of attention on one of Surface’s main features: its keyboards. Just two columns ago, I complained about one of the key issues presented by tablet interfaces: imprecise input. Compared to a keyboard and mouse pointer, putting down text on an iPad can seem like typing with your feet. The Surface’s brightly-colored, easily-integrated keyboards eliminate this problem. These thin, attractive add-ons should provide a hybrid touch and keyboard experience superior to the touch-only experience. At the least, the Surface keyboards call into serious question Apple’s branding of its own covers as “Smart.”

Connectivity - Attracting less attention is the array of ports which will be at the disposal of Surface users. Where Apple offers only a traditional 30-pin connector on iPad, Surface includes USB, SD card, and HD video jacks built into each unit. This eliminates the need for costly dongles, which can rapidly become annoying clutter. iPad owners may find themselves jealous of these features.

The kickstand – The Surface’s built-in “kickstand” is an incredibly useful inclusion. My streaming video addiction means my iPad spends a ton of time propped up. Where I had to purchase a case to do this with my iPad, the Surface provides this feature natively. The kickstand will also be a useful accompaniment when using Surface’s keyboard covers.

The Bad

Though Surface is an exciting new product offering, there are some negatives to consider.

Microsoft surface tablet side view kickstand extendedThe Kickstand - “Sexy” doesn’t have a kickstand. While Surface’s crutch doesn’t look horrible, it is a pretty dorky compared to Apple’s minimalist design aesthetic. The tablet’s kickstand and keyboards may also indicate that Microsoft is taking a different approach to tablet accessories than Apple’s. Many — me included — purchase third-party accessories for their iOS devices. An entire ecosystem has sprouted up for this market, and Apple gets a cut of every sale. Including a kickstand and featuring Microsoft-designed keyboards so prominently in advertising may impede development of a robust accessory economy for the Surface.

The screen - Microsoft has been vague on the topic of the Surface’s screen, describing the Windows 8 version as offering a “ClearType Full HD Display” but offering no details. Assuming, as many have, that this means the Surface will boast a 1920 x 1080 display, this still puts Surface behind Apple’s 2048 x 1536 [Note: as originally published, this column incorrectly cited the iPad's retina display to be 2048 x 2536. Thanks to commenter Matt Hickman for catching this error! -L] display in the new iPad. Considering that the Surface will likely be released at least six months following the March introduction of Apple’s Retina Display iPad, Microsoft may have even more ground to make up in this area.

The form factor - Viewed from the front, the Surface looks impressive, and, though I’ve heard dissenting opinions, I think the keyboards are pretty sharp. However, photos of the back of the device show the tablet to be a bit beefy and utilitarian compared to the iPad’s svelte, Spartan frame. Though Apple has recently had a lead in terms of industrial design, that lead is even more apparent in context of the Surface. A tablet’s visual appearance will be a factor in the purchase decision for many users, and Microsoft has ground to make up in this area.

Microsoft’s hardware history - Viewed in a positive light, Microsoft’s hardware history could be summed up as “initially bad products, but improving over time.” Look at the Xbox. We’re still making jokes about about the size of the original Xbox. The initial Xbox controllers were also truly terrible. The Xbox 360, with a more tolerable base unit and industry-leading controller design, vastly improved on both of these issues. A similar story can be told about the Zune — laughable in the first generation, competitive in its second. When viewed in this light, it may be wise to wait for the reviews before you purchase a Surface.

The unknown

Microsoft’s vagueness on several key points mean that the Surface’s future is still to be written. The factors below could easily determine if the Surface is the success that Microsoft needs it to be.

Microsoft surface tablet flat blurred promo videoThe price - The iPad is as amazing for its $399 entry price as for its excellent design and user experience. Much has been written about Tim Cook’s supply-chain genius. Recently, it was claimed that “the iPad would cost $5,000” without Cook’s oversight. Lacking Tim Cook, how much will the Surface cost? This may be the key question that will define the future of the Surface.

The dangerous fork - The announcement of the Windows RT Surface may indicate that Microsoft is solving the price issue at the cost of user experience. The coolest applications and features may only be available on the Surface with more horsepower. This creates a second-class tier of users from the get go, and may make the Surface a more difficult application platform for developers.

The keyboards - I maligned iPad keyboards in the same column in which I criticized tablet interfaces. They are clunky, badly-performing additions to an otherwise sleek, beautiful device. Absent hands-on experience, the Surface typing experience — especially with the touch keyboard — is a huge question mark. As prominently as the keyboard appears to feature in Microsoft’s plans for the device, these keyboards must deliver excellent experiences if the Surface is to be a hit. It remains to be seen if they can meet that demand.

A promising, if uncertain, future

That’s of course to say nothing of about other outstanding concerns — notably battery life and the touch application economy — that will help decide the fate of the Surface. Still, in an era defined by Apple’s rise to become America’s premier tech company, the Surface gives Microsoft fans something to look forward to. Today it’s just a talking point, but the Surface tablet will be incredibly important to Microsoft’s future. Expect to hear tons more about it as we approach it’s (still uncertain) release date.