Why the Microsoft Surface tablet is brilliant news for everyone

Well then. That took us all by surprise didn’t it?

Last week’s keynote from Microsoft announcing their Microsoft Surface tablet strategy was unexpected.

We should be clear, though: Of course Microsoft has been looking at tablets. Of course. Tablets (or, quite frankly, “iPads”) are one of the biggest trends in technology right now. Microsoft couldn’t possibly ignore the trend.

There had been rumblings of something coming from Microsoft for quite a while. Most expected the company to announce a hardware partner (or a series of partners). Most expected the actual announcement to take place “later” (where “Later” is defined as a rolling date 6-months-ahead).

Quite why Microsoft announced the Surface strategy last week is unknown. If you look at the calendar of events coming up though you can see why. Google’s got their I/O event coming up — they’re surely going to have to address the appalling state of the Android tablet market. Apple’s lingering in the wings having just completed their WWDC event — the new iPhone rumour mill will shortly pick up pace distracting everyone.

Whatever the reason, the announcement was — shock horror — received rather well, wasn’t it?

There’s a list a million questions long about the Surface. Price point and battery life are amongst the big ones. If the device is half decent, I’m confident developers will give it the requisite attention.

Bring it to market at £1,099 and no one will care.

At £399 around the iPad-defined price point and we should have some exciting times. I have to confess that every time the on-stage team kept referring to the Surface as a “PC”, I couldn’t help but think “45-minute battery”. We need to see iPad-esque battery performance or, again, it’s no dice Microsoft.

I don’t think Microsoft could seriously bring a device to market that was sub-calibre. They have surely learned their lessons from [insert example here] launch failures.

The kick-stand is a brilliant innovation. The integrated keyboard cover looks simply wonderful. I could see myself using the device. With a fair wind, I could see Microsoft selling hundreds of millions of these devices. I could see this rivalling the iPad.

And this is the brilliant news I referred to in the post subject.

Stay with me. And let’s assume the rose-tinted spectacles. Assume a fair wind.

The tablet market is already getting boring. Momentum beyond the iPad has crashed into the wall. Hardly anyone is even bothering with Android — a total abomination on tablets. It’s not even worth talking about ‘tablets’. We all mean iPads.

I can’t move for stories of huge and small enterprises discussing their ‘tablet strategies’ — they mean iPads.

I’ve only found one story in about 2 years of this whole tablet ecosystem detailing a sizeable purchase of Android tablets. I’ll find it and link it here if I can. I’m sure there’s a few more out there. I’ve seen quite a few companies who’ve deployed BlackBerry PlayBooks too.

But alas, the zeitgeist is all about iPad.

This, unfortunately, is a bad thing. It’s bad for innovation. Apple can easily take all of the smart innovation they’re playing with and spread it out across another few years. They can simply pick one or two hero additions (like the Retina screen) and knock out an update every 9 months or so. There’s nothing to compete with.

Watching the Surface keynote though, for the first time I actually felt my iPad 3 was a bit deficient. The kick stand actually looked smart. It makes my iPad feel a bit… well, yeah, why should I have to buy a flipping £39 piece of plastic to make my iPad stand up?

And the keyboard? Don’t get me started on the physical keyboard. That makes my iPad look pretty useless. How come Microsoft were able to create a physical touch sensitive keyboard that’s THREE FLIPPING MILIMETRES thin? That, there, is smart innovation. All of a sudden — and for the first time in AGES — I felt Apple’s iPad was rather deficient as a result of something I’d seen from a competitor.

There’s plenty of caveats here. Yes the iPad is fantastic. Yes I still love it. I’m not about to dump it.

But this is an interesting situation.

Let’s assume Microsoft bring the Surface to market for £399. Let’s assume it does 8-hours easily battery. (Or at least one of their models does). Let’s further assume that developers lap it up. After all, the creation of apps will be pretty straight forward, especially if you’re already familiar with Windows development.

Now let’s look at Microsoft’s partner network. It’s huge. The accessories and additional options could be brilliant, not least because of Microsoft’s open viewpoint — within reason, they’ll let you do anything as long as you license it correctly (as apposed to Apple’s strict control policy). The Surface has got a USB port! Everything you’ve sort-of wanted to do with an iPad, you can now try out with a Surface. Innovation should start flowing. Combine this with a bit of market momentum and things could get rather exciting.

Add in Windows 8 on the desktop, the XBOX (“TV”) and Windows Phone and things start to look rather compelling.

I’ve always found Apple are good when it comes to leading their own little niche. I wonder how they’d react to concerted, aggressive, exciting and highly inspiring innovation from Microsoft and the company’s partners?

One point I haven’t examined is why Microsoft has opted to produce the Surface themselves rather than with a hardware partner such as Dell, HP, Nokia or HTC. There’s quite a few possible explanations. This is something I discussed with Ben and Rafe in this week’s 361 Degrees podcast. See what you make of the views there.

I would really like to see a decent effort to counter the iPad. The industry sorely needs a bit of competitive innovation. Like the mobile industry, it’s been rather depressing finding out that — for the most part — no one in the industry could innovate out of a wet paper bag when compared to Apple. Indeed Apple’s court action against Samsung has had some superficial merit in my opinion: Why, of all a sudden, was it written that mobile phones (and tablets) had to be black touchscreen slabs that all LOOK like the iPhone/iPad?

Anyway. That’s another story.

Are you with me? Are you excited at the possibilities?

(Watch the Surface keynote here thanks to The Verve)

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