Microsoft Introduces a Challenger to the iPad

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microsoft-surfaceIn its most strategically significant push yet into the hardware business, Microsoft on Monday unveiled a tablet computer called Surface that is intended to challenge Apple’s iPad.

At a press event in LA, the company showed off a tablet that is about the same weight and thickness as an iPad, with a 10.6-inch screen. The device 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.

The Surface tablet runs a variation of Windows 8, a version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system that is due out in the fall. Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, said the product was part of a longstanding tradition at Microsoft to create hardware, like computer mice, that show off innovations in its software.

“We want to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovations,” Mr. Ballmer said.

Microsoft executives, however, were largely mum on how Surface would affect the company’s relationships with PC makers, the hardware companies that are the vehicles for sales of Windows software. With its new tablet, Microsoft will effectively be competing directly with its biggest customers.

When asked whether Surface would damage those ties, Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft’s Windows division, gently pushed a reporter in the direction of a stand of Surface tablets and said, “Go learn something.”

Analysts said it wasn’t clear that Microsoft could depend on PC companies to build something as compelling as the iPad. “This was clearly a referendum on Microsoft’s partners,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, a technology research firm. “Microsoft felt they could not rely on others to deliver on their vision for Windows 8 in mobile computing.”

Microsoft’s decision to create its own tablet was an acknowledgment 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.

While it has made a few hardware products over the years, including the Xbox video game console, Zune music player and computer keyboards, Microsoft is still thought of largely as a software company.

In the computer business, it has for decades left the work of creating machines that run Windows to Hewlett-Packard, Dell and others.

But the response to Apple’s iPad has considerably raised consumers’ expectations of how well hardware and software work together.

That has put pressure on Microsoft to create a tighter marriage of hardware and software if it is to compete seriously with Apple’s products.

As it prepares to release Windows 8, which is designed for touch-screen devices, Microsoft can ill afford a flop.

The iPad already has eaten into sales of low-end Windows laptops, and there are growing signs that Apple’s tablet is becoming increasingly attractive to business customers, a lucrative market Microsoft has dominated for years.

Microsoft said one version of the Surface tablet would come with 32 gigabytes or 64 gigabytes of storage and feature a type of chip called ARM that is commonly used in mobile devices. Mr. Sinfosky said the price would be comparable to that of other tablets that use ARM chips.

He said a professional version of the tablet would come with an Intel processor, which is standard in more conventional PCs, and would be similar in price to ultrabooks, thin laptops that often start at around $1,000.

Mr. Sinofsky said the ARM tablet would be available when the next version of Windows was released this fall, and the professional version would go on sale a few months later.

With the detachable keyboard for Surface, known as Touch Cover, Microsoft seemed to be positioning its tablet as a more business-friendly alternative to the iPad, one that is better suited to productivity tasks that require faster typing. The keyboard has touch-sensing keys that become inactive when the cover is closed.

The keyboard could make Surface more competitive with Apple’s thin MacBook Air and more traditional Windows laptops. It will come in a variety of bright colors, adding a whimsical touch to the dark, hard-edged appearance of Surface. The company would not say whether the keyboard will be sold with Surface or separately.

One thing that will most likely limit sales of the tablet is Microsoft’s initial plan to sell it only in the company’s own retail stores, along with its Web store. Microsoft has opened 20 stores, and five more are coming soon.

On Monday, Microsoft seemed to borrow from Apple in the way it introduced the product. The company invited the news media to the event with only a few days’ notice and maintained an unusual air of secrecy around its details, withholding even its exact location until Monday morning.

If that alone wasn’t enough to pique the interest of the tech industry, the company took the risky step of more explicitly building up expectations for the event by promising invitees a “major Microsoft announcement,” and telling them they “will not want to miss it.”

In part, the secrecy worked, sending the blogosphere into a whirlwind of speculation about what the company had planned. The location of the event suggested to many that the device would be accompanied by a push into entertainment. But Microsoft announced no such plan and offered no explanation for why it held its event in Los Angeles.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


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