Jun 222012

Since Bill Gates turned his ship around in an Amazing Grace fashion and focused on yet unseen amount of good deeds all over this planet, no innovation from Microsoft has sparked my interest as much as the newly announced Surface tablet.

Microsoft is still kicking and Windows and Office are still ruling the world, but with a number of bad moves they had with Windows CE, Windows phones without major OS upgrades, pushing HD DVD, Windows Vista, and trying to make everything including your watch run Windows without downsizing it the right way, everybody likes to bash on them.  However, Windows 7 was well done, and although we’re still skeptical with Windows 8, this tablet is a well deserved second chance and this time they may just get it right.

Apple can brag, but they are quite enclosed in their own world and don’t allow much of third party software or hardware to run on their systems. They banned Flash from their machines while Windows and Android are still mainly successfully coping with the burden of Adobe’s resource hogs and bugs (count Apple’s iTunes and many other similar software applications in the same category).  Unlike Mac OS and iOS, Windows is a humongous ecosystem, miraculously working with thousands and thousands of different software and hardware manufacturers that don’t even certify their devices and software with Microsoft, so problems that stem from such hardware and software are out of Microsoft’s control, but often attributed to this “little” Redmond software company. Know when Apple would allow such a thing?  Nevah!  So although we all like to bash on Microsoft and Windows and would like to see them improve, allow me to say that in this world there’s barely anything as big that’s simultaneously as flexible and configurable.

When I heard rumors about their new tablet I thought that if they want to do things right, it will be able to run all Windows software, plus other mini apps.  The truth is somewhere in between, depending on how much you’re willing to spend and which version of the Surface tablet you buy.  The ARM CPU Windows RT version will be cheaper, lighter and more limited, while the Windows Pro will be basically a tablet version of a laptop.  That sounds great but the second crucial question is whether either one will be affordable enough to cause a significant market shift.

With this new design comes a legion of new-wave nerds, claiming Microsoft is stealing Apple iPad or Asus or Samsung design with the detachable keyboard.  As I mentioned in one of my Disqus posts and as I keep repeating to those who don’t remember, the first tablet that had round edges, detachable keyboard and worked relatively flawlessly, appeared way before ASUS, before Samsung, and much before Apple’s iPad.

The first such tablet was HP tc1100, running Windows XP tablet edition OS. Just like the upcoming Surface tablet (10.6″) it had a detachable 10.4″ screen, or better to say a detachable keyboard, because all the key hardware was packed in the screen part.  It wasn’t fully touch-screen, as it had a stylus pen and it was heavier than most tablets nowadays, but it was a full-blown laptop with ultra-low voltage CPU and it worked just fine either as a laptop or a tablet.  The first time I saw it in action was when a consultant installed and partitioned a major Unix machine (about 80 CPUs) with a big SAN and charted the whole thing with virtual servers, databases and drive space on his tablet so well that it really impressed me. This was in 2004.

Some mention that Microsoft isn’t an authority on the hardware market, but I’d say they definitely have more experience under their belt than Apple had before the first iPhone. Just look at all of their great mice, keyboards, Xbox360 and the revolutionary Kinect, and you’ll see that this “sleeping” giant still has the punch to get ahead, perhaps even to challenge Apple more than Android, provided that the price is right.

The strongest ace in Microsoft’s hands is being able to run the same Windows applications you’re used to see on your desktop, so I believe that the Windows 8 (Pro) version will be very popular in the business world.  Too bad there’s no Windows 7 OS version which would avoid the need for compatibility testing and approval in big corporate environments that don’t allow anything and everything on their networks.   That aside, the main stumbling block I see with this design is lack of a real detachable keyboard that would make typing on it same as on a business laptop.  Let’s hope there are more docks and docking stations coming.

The timing is great, their experience with past tablets is still fresh, and the market is ready this time.  Instead of trying to undermine their competition like they’ve been trying so far with legal bullying and anything else that may choke innovation or make the competing product costly, Microsoft is finally investing into improving their own product.  With the software part already done reasonably well in the past, they are getting a big second chance to get it right this time.  I hope they will.

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