Los Angeles -- In its most strategically significant nudge so far into the hardware industry, software maker Microsoft Corp on Monday unfurled its own line of tablet computers called “Surface” at a much-hyped press event in Los Angeles, that is intended to challenge Apple's iPad, finally craving a major strategic shift for the software giant as it struggles to compete with Apple Inc and re-invent its aging Windows franchise.
Surprisingly, the latest move breakaway with Microsoft's traditional operating model of the past 37 years, which has relied on computer manufacturers to make and market machines running Windows. This approach could throw the world's largest software company into direct competition with its closest hardware partners such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hewlett-Packard Co.
More so, the new tablet line, dubbed Surface, consists of a consumer device targeted directly at the Apple iPad, and another, larger machine designed to compete with lightweight laptops. Both contains a keyboard that doubles as a cover, and both will be powered by versions of the new Windows 8 operating system.
At a press event here, the company demonstrated a tablet that is about the same weight and thickness as an iPad, with a 10.6-inch screen. Apart from the size, the new device also has a built-in “kickstand” that allows it to be propped up for watching movies, and a thin detachable cover that will serve double duty as a keyboard. Also, a version of the tablet will include a “TypeCover” designed to replicate a full-size keyboard.
Addressing the audience, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said that the company had embarked on to work with OEMs, but also has a history of designing its own hardware to showcase the best designs. Ballmer cited the Microsoft Mouse, the company's own keyboard, and the Xbox game console and Xbox Kinect sensor accessory as examples.
Rumors that Microsoft was preparing something along these lines were rife ahead of the event.
Microsoft CEO Steven A. Ballmer, shows off the new tablet called Surface during a news conference at Milk Studios on June 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.... Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The Surface tablet comes in two flavors of Windows 8. a version of Microsoft's flagship operating system that is due out in the fall. There are consumer-targeted slates powered by an Nvidia Tegra processor and running Windows RT, Microsoft's first OS designed for devices using ARM-based chips, and there is also a “professional” version of the tablet for content creators that uses an Intel Core i5 chip and runs the x86-optimized flavor of Windows 8 for mobile devices.
“With Windows 8, we did not want to leave any scene uncovered,” Ballmer said. “Much like Windows 1.0 we wanted to give Windows 8 its own accompanying hardware, he added.”
The lighter, thinner version of the Surface tablet, will be the first to come out at the same time as the general release of Windows 8, and will feature Microsoft's popular Office suite of applications.
It is similar to Apple's new iPad, heavier but slightly thinner. With 10.6 inch screen it comes with a 32GB and 64GB memory sizes. Besides, a second, heavier tablet intended for the new generation of lightweight laptops called “ultrabooks”, running on traditional Intel Corp chips, will come in 64GB and 128GB models. That will be available about three months after the ARM version, Microsoft said.
Microsoft's new tablet, Surface, will run a variation of Windows 8, a forthcoming version of the company's flagship operating system. Joe Klamar/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images
Among other things, the company did not disclose any details on pricing, except that they would be competitive with comparable ARM tablets and Intel-powered Ultrabooks. They will be on sale online and in Microsoft's new brick-and-mortar stores in the United States.
However, industry pundits were generally impressed by the devices' specifications, but suspected they were a sure-fire hit.
“I do not see this as an iPad killer, but it has a lot of potential,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at tech research firm Forrester. “This raises more questions than answers. The story that Microsoft told today was incomplete. They focused on the hardware innovation but did not talk about the services, the unique Microsoft assets that could make this product amazing.”
Nevertheless, the Redmond Wash.-based company's decision to create its own tablet is a crystal clear indication that the company needed to depart from its regular way of doing business to get a grip on a threat to its dominance in computing.