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Microsoft Surprises with Surface Tablets

After stagnating for so many years, Microsoft manages to surprise us with a rather refreshing innovation. I’ll stop short of calling it a new invention, since the new Microsoft Surface Tablet can’t completely lay claim to being in an entirely new product category. But definitely, Microsoft has done something really interesting with the Surface Tablet’s Touch Cover.

The Touch Cover, just to recap, is just 3mm thick. Not very different from, say, the thickness of the iPad’s Smart Cover. What’s truly exciting is that the Touch Cover also functions as a multitouch keyboard and touchpad. Yup. A virtual one, sort of, in the sense that there are no mechanical keys that move as you press them. The Touch Cover’s keys are basically resistors printed on a film inside the cover. They sense pressure when your fingers press on the cover.

I must point out that the Touch Cover isn’t anything of a technological breakthrough. I happened to be playing with Arduino stuffs lately and one of the components in the “starter kit” that I got included a  membrane potentiometer, where its resistance varies depending on where I pressed down on it. It’s not rocket science. It’s not new technology. But Microsoft is pretty clever with what they came up with.

For some time I’ve been telling people how Microsoft’s “star” product is really Office. Everyone needs Office. Even the Mac users. Even the Linux users (although they would have to do it, probably, on a Windows platform).

As much as I’m surprised how Microsoft came up with this neat trick, I’m likewise surprised that Apple didn’t come up with something like that. Or maybe they did but they did not believe in keyboards. Yeah, that would be a convenient excuse now.

Hopefully Microsoft has remembered to trademark or protect their Touch Cover idea from being stolen by Apple and Google and other manufacturers. It’s going to be something pretty unique and sellable to Windows users.

Going forward, the interesting question is if the new Surface Tablet is going to matter at all. The Surface Tablet hardware is interesting, but nowadays, users are also buying into an ecosystem. Even if users aren’t already consciously aware, once they start buying an app, they are starting to buy into an ecosystem. The more you buy, the more of the services you depend on, you very quickly commit yourself to the ecosystem and you’ll find it more difficult to switch. An iPhone and iPad user who’s spent $100 on apps is probably going to continue buying iPhones and iPads.

Microsoft, unfortunately, could be a little late coming to the party with this interesting hardware. I think the Surface Tablet will likely appeal to enterprise IT departments. Enterprise IT probably loves Microsoft a lot more than Apple or Google. But employees these days are demanding BYOD. In fact, I just came across a NetworkWorld article today that young workers say BYOD is a “right”, not “privilege.

It doesn’t look like the Surface Tablet is going to win hands down in price. Microsoft has indicated that it will competitively priced with similar gadgets. So, we’re expecting the ARM-based tablet to be priced like an iPad, and the Core i5-based tablet to be priced like an ultralight notebook.

If the ARM-based tablet is going to be priced like an iPad, then why not buy an iPad? Similarly, the Core i5 tablet? I know… I already said it myself, the Touch Cover is really very interesting. “Interesting” is one thing. People will start weighing in other factors once they actually think about what tablet to buy.

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