Microsoft's Surface: genius or mishmash?

Microsoft's Surface: genius or mishmash?

Summary: Microsoft's new Surface tablet has been described as a "Swiss Army knife of a tablet". But has the company hit the mark with it, or is it just a "horrible mishmash" of the tablet and laptop worlds?

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Microsoft's new Surface tablet has been described as a "Swiss Army knife of a tablet". But has the company hit the mark with it, or is it just a "horrible mishmash" of the tablet and laptop worlds?

The Surface, showing the keypad cover and kickstand
(Credit: Microsoft)

The answer to that question depends a lot on price, apps and whether the device is sexy enough for business users to want to bring it into work — but also if Microsoft's enterprise clout is still strong enough to convince companies to buy tablets for their fleets, according to analysts and commentators.

Gartner research VP Carolina Milanesi thinks Microsoft has hit it; at least in terms of the "sex" factor.

"I do think the hardware looks sleek enough to get high-end users interested, especially users who are more interested in a tablet for work purposes," she said.

Unfortunately, there's the possibility that the exciting look might be a bit too hot.

"I'm impressed that they've managed to get a Core i5 into something that small, but I wouldn't want to be holding onto it when the CPU's going," application architect Benno Rice said on this week's Patch Monday podcast.

"If you thought your MacBook Pro singed you in sensitive areas — holding onto this while the CPU's cranking, I think, would be interesting. Although, hopefully, they've tested that."

Possibly, the most interesting part of the design is the kickstand and keyboard that is included in the covers — either a slimmer multi-touch keyboard or a fatter mechanical keyboard, which has analysts calling the design compelling.

Telsyte analyst Foad Fadaghi believes these features give it extra traction in the business market.

"We can't be sure until we try the device hands-on," he said. "A keyboard, however, makes it suitable for content creation and transition from PC to tablet easier for applications like Word and Excel."

Ovum's chief telecoms analyst Jan Dawson pointed out that the design could have IT managers seeing the device as a replacement for the Windows computer, which could net the tablet adoption at the desktop.

Yet, not everyone is convinced.

Technology author and broadcaster Paul Wallbank said on Patch Monday that most people have got used to using an Apple-type keyboard, and offering a mechanical one feels like a step backwards.

"This is: 'welcome to 1990s'," he said.

And, while IDC analyst Al Hilwa told Marketwatch that Microsoft's tablet was a "Swiss Army knife", and it was great that Microsoft had "put a stake in the ground in terms of how they imagine the future of the PC", other analysts are worried about what this means for its relationship with its original equipment manufacturers (OEM).

"What does it say about the tablets Microsoft is seeing from its OEM partners as it gets ready to launch Windows 8, that they felt they needed to launch their own tablet?" Dawson asked.

"Either they are not happy with the devices out there, or they are not satisfied with only taking a licence fee from selling Windows based tablets. Either way, it is a huge vote of no confidence in its OEM partners, who should rightly feel slighted. It is rarely a good idea for an OS owner to start competing with its OEM partners, and this does not feel like an exception."

Gartner's Milanesa said that the point of Microsoft making the tablet was more about luring people onto the Windows 8 Metro interface, than about the hardware, itself.

"The point here, for me, is more about showing off Metro as a UI. Put some sexiness back in the Microsoft brand and ultimately remain the main computing OS, while migrating their user base over to Metro."

But Ovum's Dawson is sure that Windows 8 and the tablet is not a match made in heaven.

"There are no surprises in the software — the Surface tablet uses the same two desktop and RT versions of Windows 8 that we've been hearing about. As such, nothing has changed there, and it still looks like a huge break with the past on the surface, but with a jarring switch back to the old desktop world hidden beneath," Dawson said.

"In theory, it delivers all the benefits of both the tablet-optimised environment and the classic desktop approach and apps, but in reality, the versions available to try at the moment are a horrible mishmash of the two worlds that is likely to be confusing for the consumer."

Topic: Microsoft

Suzanne Tindal

About Suzanne Tindal

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at ZDNet.com.au as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for the site.

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9 comments
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  • maybe it also says that Microsoft is unhappy at the way Windows Phone 7.5 has been treated by OEM's and this is a precautionary shot across the bows?
    KRP1950
  • I am wary of MS hardware - they dont have a great track record of supporting it, except perhaps for mice and keyboards.

    That aside, I personally would be happy for something like this to replace my brick of a laptop. For my work, I need something that runs Windows and having a touch keyboard taking up already precious little screen real estate is not an option.
    xBeanie
  • Well we know how Microsoft competed with iPod with Zune. And folks say Zune who??? LoL. Neither of the Surface pads on offer have option to connect to 3G or 4G networks and most folks like their tablets to be able to access the mobile network. Microsoft seems to try and compete with Apple but fail.
    depthcharges@...
    • I suppose Apple never releases a dud product? Remember Lisa, Newton?
      Jules_01
    • WiFi

      The Wifi version of the iPad sells far better then the 3g or 4g models...
      C#2010
  • Built with another interface to integrate with the original system like the jump made by Ubuntu a year a go to Unity but without the overall thought about what that means. Unity is a Linux UI & mostly unknown whereas Windows is a known product so facing rejection by a large contingent. Hopefully they've shot themselves in the head with this one. Death to Windows crap!

    As for their phone software, nobody cares because it is crap...
    alfielee@...
  • I think @andrew312 is mistaken that "most" people want their tablets to connect to 3G networks. I let my tablets piggyback my phone connection, since that never leaves my side and will never be replaced by a tablet. Easier to manage and it defaults to known WiFi nodes anyway. Even though I'm technically a Mac Fanboi, this looks viable, if they get the UI right, and it does look like they've been spending a great deal of intelligent effort on that. The real downside in this equation is the UI and features of MSOffice, which would benefit a great deal from apps like IAWriter on the iPad.
    wheelyweb
  • As to the comment that the keyboard is a "backward feel", absolute rubbish! I own an ASUS Transformer Prime TF201 which has a detachable keyboard and I can use the device like an Ipad or like a computer. I have shown it, constantly, to customers, many of whom are book authors and they all want to get one. Why? Well, Asus goes a bit further and give you an almost QWERTY yet smaller keyboad but it ALSO has 10 hours of battery life and charges the pad part if needed.

    People arent as comfortable with an Ipad alike keyboard when they are going to type email and type chapters of boooks, type presentations, do web site programming or setup (Joomla for example) as they are with keyboards. Step out of the dark and realise that IPADS are yesterday's hero. You have to realise we want more. The ability to use a keyboard of reasonable size is a MUST for most people but even better, the keyboard SHOULD have a lipol battery in it. If the Microsoft one doesnt, it is nowhere near as good as the Asus one.
    greg-w-h
  • Is this really a TABLET???

    Microsoft's promotional pictures always show it docked with a keyboard. Can it work in portrait mode? Why bother with this if you can get a laptop?
    johnsmith9875