OPINION There’s nothing revolutionary on the hardware side about Microsoft’s freshly launched Surface tablet. What might be a game-changer is the operating system

Surface: First of the
I was fresh off the air from an interview on Business News Network about Microsoft’s newly launched Surface tablet when I realized that, frankly, I had a lot more to say. I’d been prepping for the interview for a couple of days, was ready to in just about any direction on the subject, was building up a head of steam and – boom – time’s up.
 

 

Fortunately, I’ve got this day job that lets me elaborate without much in the way of space limitation.
 
The significance of the Surface has nothing to do with hardware features. It’s got multi-coloured, click-on keyboards? Cool. A kickstand to keep it upright? Neat. You can put wheels on it and use it as a skateboard? Awesome. For all that, it’s just a tablet. What’s significant is the operating system.
 
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Back in 2004 or thereabouts, Wintel OEMs started pushing tablet computers. Since they couldn’t let go of their keyboards, they created convertibles, with hinged keyboards and the accompanying penalty in bulk and weight. Fujitsu was the only vendor I can recall with a straight up slate (I still remember the demo unit, with its slim-for-its-time lines and vivid display that was like looking into the eyes of someone who loves you, but I digress), but the form factor made no difference because the operating system wasn’t touch-optimized. Buyers stayed away in droves.

Then came the iPad. Basically an overgrown smart phone without the phone, it launched a new, successful generation of tablet. Apple’s painfully proprietary ethos meant other manufacturers were locked out, so they opted for the next-best option, the Android platform. Some produced tablets based on Windows 7. I don’t know what the opposite of a hotcake is, but that’s what those tablets sold like. In the third quarter of 2012, Microsoft held a staggering 0.4% of the tablet market. Why? It was a computer OS, largely unusable in a mobile context.

And as of Friday, we have the Surface, which in and of itself is not at all revolutionary. But what it boasts is a fully fledged mobile computer operating system in Windows 8 (okay, Windows 8 RT). And this could change a lot.

I’m calling the Surface and the coming deluge of Windows 8 a third wave of tablets. They’ll have (almost) full-scale desktop power, so they’ll be running applications, not apps. (How that pricing model pans out will be an interesting drama to watch.) The hardware will be commodity, so OEMs will be competing on price more than brand. This will put downward pressure on tablet prices across the board.

What of the legendary loyalty of the Apple crowd? The fanbois won’t give a Windows 8 tablet a sniff. Neither will the truly app-committed, those with 50-plus apps on their tablet. But note this: While Apple has about 60 per cent of the tablet market, Google’s Android operating system is the OS of choice in the smart phone market by about the same margin. This suggests the iPad has penetrated beyond the fanboi market; people bought one because they needed a tablet, not because they wanted Apple’s newest and shiniest. When it comes time to replace that tablet, many might realize how much Microsoft there is in their lives, from their desktop at work to their children’s Xbox 360, and how the tablet fits in the overall scheme of devices. At that point, price will have a huge influence over the purchasing decision.

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