Microsoft has outlined details of its Surface tablet, unveiling pricing, market availability, and even putting a limited number up for pre-order. While I find the hardware interesting to say the least, what I find even more interesting is Microsoft's insistence on pushing a keyboard with the device.
Should a tablet need a keyboard?
I use tablets a lot. I've written tens of thousands of words on my iPad without the need for a physical keyboard. I find that I can do everything that I want to do just fine using the on-screen virtual keyboard. I have a separate keyboard, a nifty Apple wireless one, but it's something that I rarely use. If I'm going to carry a tablet and a keyboard with me then I might as well take my notebook with me instead. And while I'm at it, I may as well bundle in a mouse to the notebook so it feels like my desktop PC.
Others disagree with me. ZDNet's James Kendrick, mobile tech guru and a regular tablet user, relies heavily on separate keyboards. Kendrick believes that Apple should go as far as to design a thin smart cover for the iPad complete with integrated keyboard.
While I have no objections to the idea of keyboards existing for tablets, the problem with pushing them too heavily as a bundle with a tablet is that it gives the impression that keyboards are required, as opposed to being only an accessory that some people might be interested in considering. By showcasing Surface tablets with keyboards Microsoft is in danger of steering the hardware into the tar pits on a number of fronts.
While surface tablets start at a reasonable $499, that Touch Cover that's seen in most of the product shots adds an extra $120 to the bottom line. The hard Type Cover is an extra $130. Not only are these keyboards expensive -- Apple's wireless keyboard is only $70 -- it pushes the whole bundle to $620, which is anything but cheap.
Does that keyboard really justify the $120 price tag, or is Microsoft charging a premium for the keyboard/cover? A keyboard that costs one-fifth of the price of the tablet feels very steep to me and will no doubt others.
A $499 tablet might just be cheap enough to be an impulse buy, but factoring in whether they need that keyboard or not could be enough to put them off pulling the trigger on a Surface.
Heavy emphasis on the keyboard will make people nervous about Windows 8
Microsoft has built the Windows 8 interface with touch in mind. The idea is that the operating system is ready for tablets and touch.
Then why they keyboard?
Again, I can understand a keyboard appealing to some, but it doesn't feel right that it is a core feature pushed by Microsoft. Either Windows 8 is touch-ready, in which people can do what they want to do on a Windows 8 or Windows RT-powered tablet without a keyboard, or it's not. And remember, that keyboard also features a touchpad, doubling as a mouse. That should make buyers -- both consumer and enterprise users -- nervous about just how ready for touch Windows 8--Windows RT actually is.
The stark reality is that you shouldn't need a keyboard for your tablet, let alone a $120 keyboard.
Keyboard seems like the main differentiator, but Surface doesn't ship with it
If they keyboard is one of the core features of the Surface tablet, then why not ship one with each system? Selling the Touch Cover as part of all the Surface bundles -- as opposed to just the 64GB model -- would reduce the overall cost of the accessory.
Deciding whether to go for that keyboard or not could make people stop and think about their Surface purchase, as opposed to buying the tablet and then deciding whether they need a keyboard or not.
The key to successful selling is making the decision to buy as simple as possible. Look at how Apple sells the iPad -- Choose whether you want Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and cellular, then pick a storage capacity.
That's how Surface should be sold.
UPDATE: A Microsoft spokesperson has clarified the situation, pointing out that there are three different models, available, two of which come with the Touch Case.
- a 32GB version priced at US$499,
- a 32GB version bundled with a black Touch Cover priced at US$599,
- and a 64GB version bundled with a black Touch Cover priced at US$699.