Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft Jumps on the Tablet Bandwagon

Story first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Microsoft Corp. on Monday unveiled the first computer it has ever made, a tablet called the Surface that comes with a keyboard and other features designed to stand out in a market dominated by Apple Inc.

The new device, unveiled by the Microsoft Chief Executive at an event for journalists, is a sign of the new tactics the software giant has been forced to embrace as it tries to make up lost ground in the mobile market.

Microsoft said the smallest Surface tablet is 9.3 millimeters thick and weighs 1.5 pounds, which is similar to Apple's iPad, at 9.4 millimeters thick and 1.44 pounds. The Surface has a 10.6-inch screen compared with the iPad's 9.7-inch screen.

The Surface has a built-in kickstand and magnetic cover, which also acts as a touch keyboard. Microsoft didn't say whether the device would connect to cellular data networks or would be Wi-Fi only.

The Surface will be priced like comparable tablets. Microsoft will sell the tablets itself at Microsoft's handful of retail stores and through some online channels.

Microsoft didn't identify contractors who will manufacture the hardware, or provide much clarity on timing—except to say that the first Surface models will arrive when Windows 8 is generally available, which is expected to be in the second half of the year.

The new tablet device is styled as a vehicle to exploit its forthcoming Windows 8 operating system, and a variant called Windows RT that relies on different kinds of computer chips. The software is the first from Microsoft designed with tablet computers in mind, offering an interface called Metro that is designed to be controlled by a user touching a display.

Microsoft executives repeatedly use the words "no compromises" to describe the tablet computers they envision running Windows 8 and Windows RT—which means that users will be able to use work-oriented tools like Microsoft Word and Excel programs, not just be used for watching movies and surfing the Web.

Microsoft also emphasized the use of the Surface with a keyboard, a convertible usage model that the company has helped champion and Apple has publicly discounted.

The Surface is a PC, the Surface is a tablet and the Surface is something new that Microsoft thinks people will really love.

Microsoft's involvement with tablet-style computing goes back more than three decades, supplying software to companies for products designed to be activated with a pen-style device. But those machines failed to gain wide acceptance. The Surface, and the new versions of Windows, are an attempt to emulate the touch-based interaction that Apple popularized with the iPhone and iPad.

The company also used the name Surface for a tabletop computer it first demonstrated several years ago.

Microsoft executives said the company's decision to make a homegrown tablet computer fits with the history of Microsoft making hardware when it is needed to bolster the company's software, such as Microsoft's making one of the earliest computer mouses.

But by making its own tablet, Microsoft also risks taking sales away from a coming crop of Windows-powered tablets from its own allies. Microsoft traditionally has left the making of computers to partners such as Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo Group Ltd. Microsoft treading on the hardware-makers turf threatens to strain that long-standing business arrangement.

The computer makers' business is dependent on Microsoft, so they may not express annoyance publicly at Microsoft's trading on the hardware makers' turf. But at least some hardware executives are fuming privately at Microsoft's decision.

Microsoft's move to make its own tablet comes with consequences, which is complicating choices for consumers and complicating relations with third-party manufacturers.

Microsoft showed off the two versions of the Surface. The versions running Windows 8 will run chips from Intel Corp., which supplies chips used in most PCs. The versions running Windows RT will be powered by chips from Nvidia Corp. based on designs from ARM Holdings PLC, a variety of chips widely used in cellphones and tablets.

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