Is Microsoft’s Surface Tablet the iPad Rival the Tech World Desperately Needs?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 19 2012 12:23 AM

Why I Love Surface

The company’s new tablet could be the iPad rival the tech world desperately needs.

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface design team member Panos Panay demonstrates the company's new tablet at a press event in Los Angeles.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

I love the Surface. And that’s true even though I know very little about it. At a top-secret press event in Los Angeles on Monday, I was allowed to spend only about 90 seconds with Microsoft’s new tablet device. Even that brief time was circumscribed. I was only permitted to touch the device while the machine was powered off. Microsoft representatives were happy to show off the device, but they didn’t let me actually use the new tablet.

What’s more, much about the Surface remains mysterious. Microsoft won’t tell us its price; it will only say that the cost will be “comparable” to that of other tablets. We don’t know when it will go on sale (the company suggests sometime later this year). We also have no idea whether developers will create cool apps for it, we don’t know if the tablet’s build quality will hold up once Microsoft begins manufacturing it in large quantities, and we don’t know if—like many would-be iPad killers that have been released so far—the Surface will prove to be a buggy mess.

And yet, despite all these unknowns, I’m already deeply smitten. Not because the Surface is so great—though it seems like it might be—but because it represents a new and potentially powerful force in the tech industry. For the first time in its history, Microsoft is taking PC hardware as seriously as it does software. The software giant is coming around to a maxim that archrival Steve Jobs always held dear—that the best technologies come about from the tight integration of code and manufacturing, and that no company can afford to focus on just one half of that equation.

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It’s not clear, yet, if Microsoft’s new tablet will pose a serious threat to the iPad’s dominance. Most likely not, at least not in its first incarnation, especially given Apple’s enormous lead in the market. But whatever its prospects, anyone who yearns for a vibrant PC industry should applaud Microsoft’s move.

During the last couple years, the software company has been working to make its next version of Windows perform amazingly well on touchscreen tablets. It has succeeded maybe a little bit too well—so well, in fact, that I’ve worried that Windows 8 might be a nightmare on desktops and laptops. But after investing so much to create a great tablet interface, Microsoft risked losing the battle on hardware. Many of its traditional PC partners—Samsung, Asus, Dell, and HP—have already tried to take on Apple with rushed, ill-considered, cheaply made tablets. Microsoft would have been foolish to rely on that gang of losers to create tablets that were worthy of the new Windows. With the Surface, the company is taking its future into its own hands.

But wait, you say. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Remember Zune? Wasn’t that the same story—after trying and failing to go after Apple’s iPod with software alone, Microsoft created its own music player in 2006, and it quickly cratered in the marketplace. Why should we expect anything different this time?

Because Zune was a late, me-too product that didn’t try to stake out a different path from Apple. The Surface seems like a much more carefully considered device.

Microsoft has clearly spent a lot of time making this thing look and feel just right. The Surface isn’t flashy—it’s less outwardly gorgeous than the new iPad—but it is delightfully functional. It’s got a kickstand built invisibly into the device, and, even better, Microsoft created an ingenious case that includes a “pressure sensitive” touch keyboard right inside the cover. If it works well, the keyboard—which I got to inspect at great length but not actually type on—is going to be the Surface’s killer attraction.

Lots of people get frustrated with the iPad because typing on it is a major chore. They want to use it like a full-fledged desktop, but they’re stymied by the input method. There are lots of fine third-party add-on keyboards for the iPad, but there are none as thin and slick as this Microsoft one. If the Surface ships with the keyboard—and if Microsoft markets the device as a tablet that will let you get some work done—it could be a big hit.

That’s a big if. In some ways, though, the immediate success of the Surface is beside the point. For me, the most interesting thing about the Surface isn’t the device itself, but what it says about Microsoft. As a series of executives took the stage to describe the tablet, I was struck by how many of them gushed about the complexity of the processes involved in making the device. They described making tons of prototypes in order to perfect every single angle on the tablet. They talked about using a “liquid metal infusion” system to create the internal structure of the device. At one point, the company used a soundproof “anechoic chamber”  to analyze the sound that the tablet’s kickstand makes when you slam it shut. They wanted it to sound like quality—like the door slamming shut on a European luxury car, or the sound of the clasp of fine jewelry.

Until now, there has been only one other company in the tech industry that talks so obsessively about the process of making physical things. That was Steve Jobs’ company, not Steve Ballmer’s tech firm.

With the Surface, that changes. At long last, the PC industry has some real hardware competition. And whether the Surface wins or loses, Microsoft is finally in the game.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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