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Microsoft makes 'radical' move by designing, selling own Surface tablets

June 19, 2012 05:15 AM ET

Gartenberg agreed that hands-on time was crucial to determining how he would think of the Surface.

"It may be beautiful, but it's all in the details," Gartenberg said. "The last version of the Zune was one of the most beautiful pieces of hardware, but Microsoft sold about 10 of them. Consumers are not buying devices, they're not even looking at platforms. They're buying an integrated ecosystem with a personal cloud experience. And we don't know what the Surface offers there."

The two configurations are slightly different in weight and thickness, with the Windows RT-powered Surface the lighter and thinner of the pair. According to Microsoft, it's a few millimeters thinner than the iPad and a few grams heavier.

Surface for Windows 8 Pro, however, is bulkier and heavier -- it weighs about a half pound more than its Windows RT sibling and is about two-tenths of an inch thicker.

Both tablets sport a 10.6-in. display, whose resolution was among the things Microsoft did not discuss; two built-in cameras; multiple USB ports -- USB 3.0 on the Windows 8 Pro model, the older USB 2.0 on the Windows RT tablet. But only the RT model comes with Office apps, identified as Office Home & Student 2013 RT.

Microsoft said previously that Windows RT would include versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote; the mention of "2013" associated with Office is confirmation of what others had reported earlier as the likely numerical designation of the upcoming suite.

An integrated kickstand props up the tablet for easier viewing, and Microsoft will offer a pair of keyboard accessories. The first, a touch keyboard-cum-cover dubbed "Touch Cover," will apparently give users a capability similar to pressing the on-screen "keys" on other tablets. The second, called "Type Cover," is a physical keyboard with a trackpad.

Both look very much like the one Apple sells for its iPads, and they attach the same way -- with magnetic fasteners.

However, it was unclear to analysts whether the Surface will come with a choice of cover; whether the Type Cover is only available as an optional, after-market purchase; or whether, as Sinofsky seemed to say, the Type Cover is included with the Windows 8 Pro.

Microsoft declined to comment on how it will package the Surface and the covers, or even if the pair will cost extra.

Such details matter, said Mainelli. "A big selling point was the keyboards," said Mainelli of the amount of time Microsoft officials spent discussing the design of the covers and touting their productivity-enhancing qualities. "But do they come with the Surface, or are they $50 each? Or $150? If for $500 all the cool stuff comes with [the Surface] that's one thing, but if they add $150 to the price, then oooh, it's a tough sell all of a sudden."

Each Surface will come in two configurations -- 16GB or 32GB of flash memory-based storage space for the Windows RT model -- 64GB and 128GB for the Windows 8 Pro tablet.

"You gotta give them credit, they got people excited," said Mainelli.

Exactly, added Gartenberg. "A week ago, the words Microsoft and tablet weren't even used in the same sentence," said Gartenberg. "Now they're definitely in the conversation."

But Cherry, who once worked at Microsoft, was taken aback by the dramatic departure from nearly four decades of history. "Microsoft has only done hardware in situations where it thought it had to do so to drive the market, when it believed partners were not taking things in the direction they needed, or when there was something deficient in the marketplace," he said.

"For whatever reason, Microsoft thought they had to do this to succeed this time with tablets," Cherry said, referring to the stylus-based slate-like devices that then-CEO Bill Gates pitched nearly 12 years ago.

Microsoft has created a website with some information about the Surface; it also published a terse specification sheet (download PDF).

The Microsoft Surface tablet.

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer and on Google+, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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