Surface Success May Hinge on Cool Covers
The typing surface may ultimately be the key differentiator for Microsoft's new Surface tablet. Though a bit pricey, the well-designed Touch or Type optional keyboard covers give the Surface a laptop feel. Still, the keyboards aren't enough to make it competitive with Ultrabooks and convertible notebooks that run Windows 8 and are powered by robust Intel or AMD processors, said tech analyst Charles King.
The Microsoft Surface tablet made its official debut on Thursday, and while a book should never be judged by its cover, many are judging this tablet by its two magnetic keyboard options.
The keyboards are one of the main components allowing the Surface to be positioned as much as a laptop as a tablet. They could allow the new Windows 8 machine to break out and claim its own niche in the market, which is what Microsoft may have intended all along.
"It's not just a tablet, but it's actually the best tablet that I've ever used," Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft, said during his Thursday keynote address at the Surface launch. "It's also not just a laptop, but it's the best laptop I've ever used, as well."
Keyboarding In on the Competition
While the price of the two keyboard covers has been a point of discussion, the form factor has been widely praised, as has the fact that Microsoft is offering two varieties.
There is the Touch Cover, which is a laser-etched soft keyboard that costs US$119 and is available in five colors; and then there's the Type Cover, a fully functioning physical keyboard available for $129 only in black. Both connect easily to the Surface and stay in place via two magnets.
Despite the added cost, the value of each is apparent.
"There are two basic arguments about the value of the Touch and Type covers," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
First, including a cover with the Surface for about the same price as a comparable iPad makes the Surface a better value, he pointed out. Second, since the covers come from Microsoft, the user experience will be consistent. Apple, on the other hand, depends on third-party vendors for iPad keyboard covers.
"The first point is more convincing, since we haven't seen much of what Microsoft OEMs are doing with Windows RT," noted King.
It seems certain that the addition of the keyboard option will position the Surface well against the competition.
"It's a hybrid," said Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. "The keyboard seems clever, but usability is going to be key for adoption."
Taking on the Tablets
Of course, it is hard not to compare the Surface to the other tablets in the market, especially given its operating system and its use as a mobile device. This is a segment that Microsoft had widely ignored, and the Surface could be company's best hope to take some of that market, which could be ever important as users continue to shift away from laptops to tablets.
"The tablet sector is booming, and tablets are competing directly and indirectly with laptops and notebooks," said Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst at Inside Network. "It's a great time to launch Microsoft Surface and give consumers a tablet option in addition to Android and iOS."
"Android tablets and iPads have adherents who won't switch, but unlike smartphones, tablets are a long way from saturation," Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld. "Some consumers will prefer the RT user interface and experience. But it's the combination of the Touch and Type cover with the Surface's relatively large display that strongly positions Surface as a portable PC replacement, allowing consumers faster and more accurate text input and full access to work documents."
It could be enough to have Apple and Google rethink their own tablet devices in light of the possibilities of these so-called hybrids.
"If Surface does well, we are likely to see Apple and Android vendors add features and peripherals that will further narrow the differences between portable PCs and tablets," Pidgeon added.
The question is whether one single device, even something as seemingly well-designed and positioned as the Microsoft Surface, would actually be able to create an entire new category. On the surface, the Surface could easily be compared to an Ultrabook or fit into the netbook space -- but given that it is a new device with a new operating system, this could mean a new category.
"Claims that the Surface has created a new product category seem pretty thin, but not as thin as suggestions that it will compete directly against Ultrabooks and hybrids/convertibles," King told TechNewsWorld. "In the vast majority of cases, those devices are running the Windows 8 OS -- not RT -- and leveraging Intel or AMD CPUs -- not less robust ARM silicon."
"Comparing the Surface to fully featured laptops and hybrid devices is a bit like putting a Smart Car up against autos ranging from minivans to muscle cars," King added. "The Surface may qualify as a means of conveyance, but its essential functionality is considerably different from what Ultrabooks and convertibles offer."
So who are the customers for this device? Laptops target students, travelers, and those who need a portable content creation device, while tablets are aimed at those looking to consume content on the go -- or at least on the couch. It is less clear who might want these hybrid devices. But does that just suggest it could attract a wider range of users? And could it be the device for those who want the tablet's ease of use with the creation functionality of a laptop?
"The Surface Tablet is a convertible but one targeted very tightly at the person who is in the market for an iPad," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
"It clicks off all of the items the iPad does poorly. Productivity: It has Office, and high-definition touch, so it can use a stylus well; the keyboard cover and a panoramic screen are better for creating things," he noted.
"It is the only product other than a MacBook that has a magnetic contact charge cord," Enderle told TechNewsWorld. "It has better cloud services -- including free streaming music -- and it was designed from the inside out rather than the outside in, which means it is more robust, better balanced, and has a stronger set of ports. If you were to define what kind of hardware would be needed to build an iPad killer, the Surface tablet pretty much checks all of the boxes."