(This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times June 19, 2012. – Janet I. Tu)
LOS ANGELES — After days of playing coy, Microsoft on Monday unveiled something it’s never done before: a Windows computer device made under the Microsoft name.
The company showed off the Microsoft Surface — a thin, elegant tablet that can convert into a laptoplike PC and seems to be aimed squarely at the market-dominating Apple iPad.
The Surface, which also will have a Pro version, is a thin tablet in a magnesium casing that comes with an integrated kickstand. The device has a thin cover that attaches magnetically and can function as a physical keyboard, something most tablets don’t have. When the cover is folded back, the keyboard automatically shuts off so the user can use Surface as a tablet.
“The Surface is a PC. The Surface is a tablet. And the Surface is something new that we think people will absolutely love,” Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said at the event, at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. No price was disclosed.
Both Surface models will run on the next version of Windows, which is being designed to operate on tablets as well as traditional desktops and laptops.
That next version is being dubbed Windows 8 for devices that run on Intel and AMD 32- and 64-bit processors. A variant, called Windows RT, is the Windows 8 version that will run on devices featuring ARM-based processors such as tablets.
Surface for Windows RT is 9.3 millimeters thin and 676 grams (1 pound, 7.8 ounces), with a 10.6-inch high-definition display.
Microsoft says it will be available around the time Windows 8 is generally available. No specific date has been set, but expectations are for an October debut.
Surface for Windows 8 Pro will be slightly thicker at 13.5 millimeters and 903 grams (1 pound, 15.9 ounces). It, too, comes with a 10.6-inch display. It also offers a feature called “Pen with Palm Block” in which the screen takes stylus/pen input and does so without the image on the screen moving as the stylus moves.
The cover-keyboard is as thin as a sheet of cardboard and sports pressure-sensitive, tactile keys. It locks into place when used as a cover for the device.
The Surface for Windows 8 Pro is expected to ship about three months after Surface for Windows RT, Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, said at the event.
Sinofsky did not disclose pricing, but said Surface for Windows RT will be comparable to other ARM tablets, and that the Windows 8 Pro version would be priced similarly to premium ultrabooks.
Microsoft has had some experience with making hardware, but mainly with peripherals — mice and keyboards.
Its biggest hardware success has been the Xbox gaming console. The company also has had some that were unsuccessful, including the Zune music player.
For PCs that run the company’s flagship operating system, Microsoft traditionally has relied on hardware partners such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell or Lenovo, which design and manufacture the desktops and laptops.
For Microsoft to come out with hardware for its most significant operating system is a huge break with that tradition. With the Surface emerging as a possible strong competitor, the relationships between those partners and Microsoft could bear watching.
Ballmer, Sinofsky and other Microsoft executives suggested in their presentations, though, that Surface is a continuation of Microsoft hardware’s philosophy of producing hardware that highlights the software.
Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft Surface, said the name of Surface comes from idea of the hardware fading into the background so that the software can shine.
It’s also the name of a table-size device the company developed and markets in which users interact with content on a big, touch-sensitive screen.
Microsoft long has dominated the traditional PC market, but it’s fallen behind in the new world of mobile. Apple has taken the dominant lead in tablets with its highly popular iPad.
In order for Microsoft to remain relevant as more people shift toward tablets instead of, or in addition to, using desktops and laptops, the company had to create a software system that was designed to work well on tablets.
It also needed to have hardware that could best show the morphing nature of Windows 8 — its ability to work both as a traditional PC and as a tablet — while also trying to out-design Apple.
It may have succeeded.
“Looking at the hardware alone, it is breathtaking and I can understand why Microsoft is bankrolling the R&D and not a partner at this point,” IDC analyst Al Hilwa said in a statement. “Surface looks like a true converged device.”
Expectations had been running high before the event, ever since Microsoft sent out an invitation to media Thursday inviting them to a vague “major Microsoft announcement.”
In the days since, the company has enjoyed a level of buzz it hasn’t garnered for a long time.
There was widespread speculation among media, bloggers and tech enthusiasts about what the company was announcing.
Speculation had ranged from a major acquisition announcement to a new Xbox-related device. More recently, speculation had coalesced around the idea of a company-branded tablet.
Whatever the fate of the Microsoft Surface in coming days, if it doesn’t succeed, it certainly won’t be for lack of buzz at its unveiling.