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16 August 2012

Microsoft's Surface: is the appeal more than skin-deep?

Microsoft Surface tablet computer

Whilst the jury is out on the ultimate success of Microsoft’s new Surface tablet computer, announced in June, no one can deny that it is impressive.

The Surface is Microsoft’s first large-scale venture into computing hardware – a route it has assiduously avoided in the past in order to avoid competing with PC vendors.

However, current tablet PCs from other makers have done little to loosen the iPad’s tenacious hold on that market. Indeed, consultancy Analysys Mason says the combined market share of all Windows tablets is under 10 per cent. So arguably Microsoft has little to lose and plenty to gain by taking on the market itself.

Surface will run two operating systems – Windows 8 Pro, the new OS due for launch this autumn, and Windows RT, a mobile version which will make Windows (or at least a version of it) available on ARM processors for the first time in the mainstream market (Windows CE runs on ARM processors, but is much more specialised). Memory will be up to 128GB for the Windows 8 version.

Will business users be attracted? Possibly, if you’re looking at the Windows 8 Pro model, which will offer backwards compatibility with previous versions. They might be attracted by the device’s tough casing, which is made of a material called VaporMg ("vapor-mag"). This is derived from magnesium, and is said to be highly robust for its thickness.

But users considering the Windows 8 RT (for "runtime") model might not be so keen. RT reportedly won’t run any legacy Windows applications at all. All you get is the specially-developed version of Office that comes pre-installed, plus essentials such as a browser. The rest will depend on developers.

Much of the initial attention focused on the Surface’s unusual 3 mm Touch Cover, which folds back to form a pressure-sensitive keypad. Microsoft says this is much more user-friendly than relying on a virtual keypad on the screen. You can also overlay an optional 5 mm Type Cover, which adds moving keys for a more conventional typing feel.

Initially, the Surface will come with Wi-Fi wireless networking but not 3G or 4G data connectivity. It is uncertain at this stage whether these features will be added later, but some pundits think Microsoft will have to offer them to compete fully with the iPad.

The key is price, and this was not known when we closed for press. Microsoft is saying the two Surface models will be priced competitively with ARM-based and Intel Ultrabook computers. That suggests that the RT version should be relatively affordable, but the Windows 8 version could be quite pricey.

• Users of the full new Windows 8 OS will not be limited to the Surface, but can take advantage of any suitable mobile hardware, including rugged devices. Software developer TAAP reckons Windows 8 will bring reassurance to businesses introducing a BYOD (bring your own device) policy – chiefly because it will work in the same fashion across a variety of platforms, making mobile device management and security much less complicated.


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