Microsoft yesterday announced that it was going to launch a tablet of it's own, powered by the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. This is Microsoft's own tablet, mind you - not manufactured in association with Nokia or HTC or anyone else. I suspect Microsoft wanted to create an integrated hardware-software experience, undoubtedly because of the enormous Apple jealously that it is suffering from. So, does the new tablet work? What does it mean for the ecosystem?
At first glance, I think there are lots of reasons to believe Microsoft is onto something here. This tablet is the first product from Microsoft after Kinect that I've looked at and said "I want that!" Specifically, I think there are two very interesting features that this tablet has gotten right, and it has the potential to really disrupt the market.
The "Windows Pro" Advantage
Microsoft actually showed off two tablets. One it calls "Windows RT" - which has similar specs to your Android or iPad tablets - Nvidia Tegra CPU, 10-inch screen and a few other interesting things. But the real winner is the second tablet, called "Windows Pro". And what's so cool about this tablet? It's running an Intel processor inside. This means that this is a full-fledged laptop/desktop computer that we've been used to, but running on a tablet-form factor.
I've been waiting for this for a while. I love my iPad and Android tablets, but some things just don't work well with them. Like there is no proper office suite that has the power of Excel or Word. Mobile browsers have come far, but they're simply no match for my desktop Chrome browser. And Photoshop. And my Nintendo GameCube emulator. And the dozen-or-so other apps that I love on my laptop that are not-quite-usable on my tablets. If Windows Pro works as promised, it will solve a ton of problems for me. The convenience and battery life of a tablet, but capable of running all of my favorite, fully-featured apps. I also suspect that there are millions of other office workers that are going to be just as excited with this prospect.
Microsoft has stumbled onto a rare innovative idea here. The magnetic cover that protects the iPad can also be used as a kickstand to keep the tablet upright. But Microsoft's tablet has a dedicated metal kickstand, so what did it do with the cover? You unfold the cover and on the inside is a keyboard! Brilliant!
While tablets have been great for consuming content, they're quite bad when I want to create content - One of my biggest complaints of using a tablet is that it is not well suited for typing. Or any other task that requires extensive use of the mouse/keyboard like making a presentation or editing a spreadsheet or commenting on a business proposal.
Unfortunately, Microsoft didn't let tech journalists actually use the Cover-Keyboard, but even if it is half as good as a regular keyboard, it will be a huge win. This has the potential to make using a tablet for more "serious" tasks significantly easier.
If Microsoft can package all this together into a smooth user experience and make Windows 8 work well, it has the potential to give Apple and Android a real headache. Most people have a laptop and a tablet today. If this works, they're going to need only one device - the Surface tablet. And you can bet that Microsoft will use all its enterprise might to push this into the corporate IT departments of companies all around the world. Corporate IT departments have become tolerant of the iPads and Android phones of late, but Microsoft may just persuade them to reverse that stand and say "Not supported" to those devices. This is going to be interesting.
There's going to be another interesting fall out from this announcement. HTC, LG and the other Windows 8 OEM partners are surely feeling very nervous right now. If Microsoft has its own tablet, why will it help these companies sell their tablets? Microsoft will try to push its own tablet, it's own integrated hardware-software experience, and try to corner the whole marketshare. About the same thing that Google is going to do with Motorola and what Apple has been doing for years. This move by Microsoft is going to speed up the fracture of the ecosystem, and may probably encourage other hardware makers like Samsung to do something on their own in the software area.
In any case, Microsoft has forced everyone to wake up and take a look. It has shown that it is very serious in this area. It remains to be seen if they can deliver on their promises, but if Microsoft does, it's going to be a great year ahead.