Microsoft’s curiously timed and orchestrated launch of its upcoming Surface tablet this week has set the tech blogosphere on fire, revealing an amazing upswell of interest in the Microsoft-branded device. But the Surface announcement raises as many question as it answers. And though it’s pretty clear that Apple and its iPad are the target of this product, Microsoft is taking a decidedly non-Apple approach to its design and creation.
Virtually everything about the Surface tablet is bizarre, even its name, which was previously used for a lumbering series of smart tables—yes, tables, not tablets—that have been unceremoniously recast as PixelSense. But what many on-site reports from the day of the launch didn’t care to mention is perhaps the most bizarre bit of all: The Surface tablet doesn’t even exist. It’s vaporware.
The devices that Microsoft showed off earlier this week weren’t real; they were simply prototypes. And anyone claiming to have gotten “hands-on” time with a Surface tablet was exaggerating, at best: No one was allowed to touch a working prototype, so those typing videos occurred on dead pieces of hardware without a working screen.
So that raises the first obvious question: Why did Microsoft suddenly rush to announce this device family? The company didn’t alert the press to Monday’s event until the previous Thursday, giving press and bloggers just days to book expensive last-minute travel to Los Angeles. What was that all about?
And why didn’t Microsoft reveal pricing for the devices? Is it waiting to see where Google comes in on its expected self-branded tablet? The closest we got to a price was that the higher-end, Intel-based version of the Surface would have a price tag similar to that of an Ultrabook. But Ultrabooks run in a wide range, from roughly $600 to $1,600, and this tablet needs to trend toward the very low end of that range. The lower-end ARM version must undercut the iPad (which costs $500 to $830, depending on model) to be competitive, as well.
And will the cost include a keyboard case? If not, how much will those cost? (There are two versions, each presumably in different color choices.)
Why will the Intel version of the Surface ship a whopping 90 days after the launch of Windows 8? Why will only the Windows RT version be made available right away?
Microsoft talks up the cellular broadband capabilities in Windows 8 but never mentioned whether these devices will offer always-connected functionality. Will they include cellular broadband, if only as an option?
The list kind of goes on and on, and the more you think you want this device, the more you realize you know almost nothing about it. And that brings me to a final couple of related thoughts: For all of its desire to be just like Apple, Microsoft is nothing like Apple. And Apple would never have introduced such a half-realized product as this. Had Apple announced the Surface, you’d know everything about it, would be able to view the full product specs on its website, would see all of the model versions and options, and so on. And you’d be able to buy it, or at least preorder it, right now.
And that’s not the only way in which Microsoft is not Apple. In its mad bid to prevent Apple from completely eroding its core market, Microsoft is curiously not using the Apple playbook at all. It’s stealing Google’s strategy of slapping its brand on another company’s product and offering it in competition with both Apple’s iPad and the numerous slates and other computing devices that will be made by its own partners. With the Surface, Microsoft has decided to compete with everyone, even its friends.
Now, to be fair, Microsoft hardly had any choice, and as I’ve noted in the past, the software giant’s partners are both its strongest asset and its biggest curse. But while we can certainly expect backward-leaning tower PCs and thick laptops from these lumbering hardware makers, it’s fair to expect any number of elegant Ultrabooks, hybrids, convertibles, all-in-ones, and other innovative computing devices from these companies, too. All of them will compete with the Surface.
The Surface tablet looks amazing, but until we know more about it—until it is actually real—I recommend scaling back the excitement a bit. There are just too many questions.