This Week in Tablets: Microsoft’s Surface tablet single-handedly revives Windows 8

June 23, 2012

Microsoft's Monday afternoon Surface tablet bombshell was as compelling as it was captivating.

The whole thing—from build-up to the actual announcement itself—felt like one of those rare moments where you absolutely had to pay attention. It felt historic, like an omen of sorts. Or foreshadowing.

So pay attention we did. Chances are that if you were sitting in front of a computer, you heard what was happening down in Los Angeles as Ballmer and company announced the 10.5-inch Surface tablet and the Surface Pro tablet. (TabTimes has full details on the Surface line of devices right here and complete list of specifications and features here.)

I couldn't believe how many people pinged me during the course of the event. Friends, fellow journalists, family members, and even strangers all chimed in. What's even more amazing is that most of these people were watching via live blog. People still do that! (I still do that.)

The hype around the Surface announcement satisfied the three key criteria any big event or announcement needs in order to captivate the masses:

1. There was a specific mystery—would Microsoft announce a tablet?—along with a strong sense of "and if they do, what happens next?"

2. There was a clear possibility of an absolute train wreck. Or train wrecks. Would Microsoft forsake its loyal partners? Would the company's announcement fall flat? Could the company possibly meet up to the hype and speculation that swirled around it for an entire weekend?

3. High pressure, high stakes. The stakes for this announcement—and for Windows 8 in general—were extremely high. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important releases in Microsoft’s history.

Amazingly, Microsoft nailed it.

Surface rises to the occasion

Ballmer and company knocked the Surface announcement out of the park in a way that has achieved what I would have never thought possible 10 days ago. No one is talking about the OS side of the Windows 8 tablet equation anymore.

And the tablet has so clearly shamed the design efforts of PC and tablet manufacturers that no one is really talking about Microsoft’s abandoning of its OEM partners and the possible ramifications of the company designing its own hardware.

The best part is that Microsoft accomplished all of the above and more by stealing a page directly from Apple's own playbook by merging aesthetic appeal with one singularly outstanding feature.

Aesthetically speaking, the Surface tablet is undeniably appealing. In both size and weight, it will hold its own against the iPad.

But the real stars were the two keyboard covers—one touch-oriented, and the other a real tactile keyboard—Microsoft unveiled. Both are eye-opening because they’re attractive and because they fulfill a real need. (The elimination of the virtual pop-up keyboard will also create much more on-screen real estate.)

One outstanding feature. Everyone who covered the announcement wrote about it, remarked upon it, and cheered. As soon as Microsoft announced the keyboards, my IM started blowing up. Even the biggest skeptics had to admit that Microsoft tapped into magic on this one, even if they remain skeptical about the Windows 8 interface itself.

(BTW, can we put a moratorium on the phrase "secret sauce"? It's quickly replaced "game changer" as the most overused and annoying tech and business phrase of the year.)

For the first time in a long time, Microsoft is generating some real, enthusiastic buzz that, barring a failure on the hardware side, will absolutely translate into increased unit sales.

Does the Surface tablet represent a shift in mentality?

Perhaps the most important thing, however, is that with the Surface announcement, Microsoft may be stepping out of the old-school desktop mentality that's been pervasive for years.

Shucking off a 25+ year legacy of obligation and support for its OEM partners is an important psychological step that was probably made a lot easier by the innovative design of the Surface tablet, which will be a superior showcase for Windows 8.

The tablet’s design also establishes an important precedent for Microsoft’s partners. With the Surface, Microsoft is saying loud and clear that the Lenovos and HPs of the world need to innovate in their own tablet designs. That’s a far cry from the fairly passive stance Microsoft has struck around previous OEM-oriented launches, such as Media Center PCs and, ahem, Tablet PCs.

Rest assured that the critics will have their way with the Surface tablet. In fact we're already starting to read the first wave of negative predictions. The lack of 4G connectivity, poor battery life, using the keyboard cover on your lap, and speculation around a high price tag are just the start. After the Surface tablet is released, the real bone picking will begin.

And at some point, critical eyes will turn back to the Windows 8 OS and its suitability for tablet computing.

But you know, whether you see the Surface tablet line as innovative or derivative, for now Microsoft has captured our imagination in a manner previously thought impossible. That counts for something. Actually, that counts for a lot.

It also bears mentioning that this company is beginning to demonstrate a knack for elegant, innovative hardware design. The Xbox had its problems but, despite that has supplanted the PlayStation 3 as the #2 best-selling gaming console this time around.

And the Kinect motion- and voice-sensing controller is a truly innovative, forward-thinking product that will form the foundation of the Xbox for another generation of gaming products.

This week's Loser: Research in Motion

Word on The Street is that Research in Motion is about to announce the worst-ever quarterly results in company history, down $1.76 million vs. Q1 of 2011. That’s a problem, and it appears to be one of the causes of a new wave of job cuts.

A close runner up is Google’s Android tablet OS. While Microsoft was riding the wave it created with the Windows 8 Surface announcement, Google inadvertently leaked news that Android 4.1—codename “Jelly Bean”—will be the successor to the Ice Cream Sandwich OS. Say what?

Earth to Google: For many consumers, the Ice Cream Sandwich OS is still a dream. And you’re killing developers with these new OS announcements.

This week's winner: Microsoft

In another week, I would have chosen Android custom keyboard developer SwiftKey. The company’s SwiftKey 3 release is very polished, and the rollout of a special healthcare version of its Android keyboard deserves special attention. Not only is it a useful tool, but it's also smart business.

But this wasn’t any ordinary week was it? It’s rare to watch a company as big as Microsoft revive its brand and convert the cynical masses with one sixty-minute event.

As always, time will tell the truth. But I’m betting the entire city of Redmond is sleeping well tonight.

On the horizon

It’s clear that we’ll have a lot more to discuss on the Microsoft Surface tablet front, as well as Windows 8 in general. Rumors of a late October launch are beginning to percolate.

I’d imagine we’ll also begin to hear what’s going to happen to the Windows 8 tablets that Microsoft’s partners are supposed to be pumping out. That will be interesting to hear.

From the tablet ecosystem perspective, all of the above is good news. This category needs a counterpoint to Apple that’s unique enough it will drive lots of sales of its own. After this past Monday’s announcement, Surface feels like it’s the one. 

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