Microsoft received a huge amount of publicity last week for unveiling two models of its new Surface tablets, though the event may have raised more questions than it answered. Why was it held in Los Angeles, for example, instead of home-town Seattle? Why wasn't Surface unveiled at a Microsoft developer conference, before an enthusiastic audience? One of the hardest to answer concerns the timing: Why Now?
The Surface "unveiling" was clearly not a launch: journalists didn’t get a full specification, prices, or launch dates. Nor did they get the chance to test drive devices properly. Based on videos of the event (I wasn't there), the whole thing looks last-minute and somewhat premature.
Of course, it's absolutely Microsoft's standard approach to work in this way. As a platform company, it usually tries to involve as many people as possible for as long as possible, because it might take years for hardware and software partners to develop or adapt their products. Ideally, Microsoft wants all its software launches to be accompanied by new PCs and new applications that are ready to go on sale.
The Surface, however, could and perhaps should have been different. In this case, Microsoft has designed the hardware to go with the software, and the software -- Windows 8 -- has long been publicly available in preview versions. Why show the hardware before the launch? It could have saved Surface for a bit of Apple-style "event marketing".
We have no information to go on, so here's some speculation….
First, it looks to me like a pre-emptive strike. Microsoft is aware that many companies are thinking about buying Apple iPads, if they have not already done so. By showing the Surface as early as possible, Microsoft is encouraging them to think again, and ideally to wait a few months until they can try real Surfaces.
The vast majority of companies use Windows, and will see the advantage of having tablets that they can program and support with the tools they already use. At least some of them will wait for something that looks like a viable alternative, so this is all Microsoft needed to show.
Microsoft certainly didn't need to give any details that might discourage companies from adopting a "wait and see" strategy, and that includes the specs and prices.
Second, Microsoft wanted to stake its claim before Google shows off its own-branded tablet, or so some have suggested. I doubt this is significant. Google has produced two spectacular flops in hardware, Chromebooks and Google TV, both of which make the Zune look extremely good by comparison. Microsoft doesn't need to make Google's efforts look bad: Google has shown it can do that all by itself.
Third, Microsoft might have wanted to energise its partners before the Windows 8 launch. Surface could certainly be a way of stimulating Metro development by persuading software houses that there will be a viable app market, but it's a bit too late in the development cycle for the hardware manufactures to "up their game" (as some have suggested) before Windows 8's launch. Most Taiwanese PC companies have already shown or hinted at their products at the recent Computex trade show.
Of course, with many PC manufacturers already supplying Android tablets, and HP embarking on a disastrous experiment with its Palm-based tablets, Microsoft might well have been reminding them which side their bread is buttered.
And while some PC manufacturers might be miffed about Microsoft intruding on their turf by branding its own tablets, they'd have been even more miffed if Microsoft had unveiled Surface at the Windows 8 launch. That really would have looked like a stab in the back.
Fourth, Microsoft might have suspected that Surface was about to leak. The company took extremely uncharacteristic precautions to keep Surface development a secret, starting in "an underground bunker with no windows". But the PC supply chain, based mainly in China and Taiwan, is notoriously leaky (albeit the leaks are notoriously unreliable), and the chance of keeping details away from suppliers is very small. Microsoft might have decided that it was better to hear about the Surface from Microsoft rather than China Daily or Digitimes.
Fifth, by going early, Microsoft gets two bites of cherry. If it had saved the Surface launch, it would have had to provide full details of the specification and price, and perhaps allowed reporters to get a proper hands-on look at its machines. Against that, it has harvested a massive amount of publicity but still kept enough back for a proper launch.
What are the final specs? How well do the keyboards work? How does the RT version compare with Pro for speed and battery life? What's Microsoft Office like on the RT version? Will there be cellular as well as Wi-Fi versions? Are there any more novelties still to be revealed? What about availability and price?
Reports from journalists who were actually at the event have generally been very positive, so Microsoft might indeed have got it right in leaving people wanting to know more.