The new tablet line, called Surface, includes one model designed to compete with lightweight laptops and both have a keyboard that doubles as a cover.
Catherine Clinch, a writer and media columnist with Filmnewsbriefs.com, who attended the launch and is tablet user, thinks it could be a game changer.
She said: “The applause moments were on things that I think were predictable – wow it stands by itself, you don’t have buy a stand, it’s all together, the keyboard folds over, it’s a cover, all those wonderful things. But when I look at this what I think of is the potential to get rid of the netbook, to get rid of the laptop, maybe even, down the line, to get rid of the full computer.”
Since the launch of Apple’s iPad, demand for tablets has skyrocketed. It is forecast, by IHS iSuppli, that more than 300 million will be sold annually by 2015.
Not wanting to be left out Microsoft is emulating Apple, which has sold 67 million iPads in the two years since its launch.
It will make the computers itself. In the past it has mostly supplied its Windows software to other computer manufacturers.
That could put the world’s largest software company into direct competition with its closest hardware partners such as Samsung and Hewlett-Packard.
Apple’s success has illustrated the benefits of an integrated approach to hardware and software.
The Surface tablets will run on versions of the new Windows 8 operating system which is the biggest overhaul of Windows in years. It features a new touch-friendly interface called Metro’. It is due to go on sale in time for the end of year holiday shopping season.
Want to touch?
The lighter, thinner version of the Surface tablet, built on an Nvidia chip designed by ARM Holdings, is comparable to Apple’s new iPad, heavier but slightly thinner. It has a 10.6 inch screen and comes in 32GB and 64GB memory sizes.
A second, heavier tablet aimed at the new generation of lightweight laptops called ‘ultrabooks’, running on traditional Intel chips, will come in 64GB and 128GB models. That will be available about three months after the ARM version, Microsoft said.
Each tablet comes with a keyboard cover that is just 3.0 millimetres thick. The kickstand for both tablets was just 0.7 millimetres deep, less than the thickness of a credit card.
The company gave no details on pricing, except to say that they would be competitive with comparable ARM tablets and Intel-powered Ultrabooks.
Industry watchers were generally impressed by the devices’ specifications, but doubted they were a sure-fire hit.
“I don’t 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 didn’t talk about the services, the unique Microsoft assets that could make this product amazing,” she added.
Tecca.com analyst Fox Van Allen said: “It’s a very interesting new device, I think the key point here is that it’s not just another iPad, it’s a device that almost serves as a replacement for a PC.”
The pro version comes with a stylus that allows users to make handwritten notes on documents such as PDF files.
After trying it, Jason Boog of the book publishing industry website Galleycat.com said: “I spent a long time training myself to write on the iPad, to use the keyboard on the iPad and type that way and the idea of having the keyboard back and be able to type wherever I want, there is something kind of appealing about that. And the stylus itself, I have never had a stylus that I enjoyed and their stylus look pretty satisfying.”
Contrary to expectations, Microsoft made no mention of integrating content and features from its top-selling Xbox game console, the Skype video calling service it bought last year, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader, its new partner in the electronic books market.
It also did not say how long the Surface would last on battery power.
Hard way to hardware
In the broader sense, this is not the first time Microsoft has ventured into hardware, or even its first computer, The Xbox game console is essentially a PC designed to connect to a TV and play video games.
When it has ventured into hardware has had a mixed record.
Apart from keyboards and mice, the Xbox console was its first foray into major manufacturing. That is now a successful business, but only after billions of dollars of investment and overcoming problems with high rates of faulty units – a problem which was nicknamed the “red ring of death” by gamers.
The company’s Microsoft-branded Zune music player, a late rival to Apple’s iPod, was not a success and its unpopular Kin phone was taken off the market shortly after introduction.
The company killed off a two-screen, slate-style prototype of a tablet device called Courier, saying the technology might emerge in another form later on.