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June 19th, 2012

Microsoft Tablet Plans ‘Surface’

It wasn’t much of a surprise Monday when Microsoft announced their new tablet, called Surface, at a press event in Los Angeles. For about a week, media pundits had been speculating that the folks in Redmond would use the occasion to unveil a tablet. What caught many by surprise, however, was that this will be a Microsoft branded device instead of an offering by the likes of Dell or HP.

Surface has all the features the public has come to expect in a tablet, like a 10.6 inch high-def touchscreen, cameras front and rear, and a small form factor. However, it also has some innovations that will help distinguish it from the crowd, most notably a removable keyboard that also serves as a “bookcover.” According to the Associated Press, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that Surface is intended to be an entertainment device “without compromising the productivity that PCs are uniquely known for.”

The Microsoft branding is unusual for a device which is essentially a computer. Although Microsoft has developed and marketed hardware items, most notably the Xbox gaming console, they’ve purposely steered clear of building their own computers in order to protect their relationship with computer manufacturers who rely on Windows, their flagship product. As CNN put it, this move can be seen as “Upending one of the world’s most successful business strategies over the past three decades…”

There’s a reason for this break with tradition. Redmond has been trying to get traction in the tablet market for years. Indeed, founder Bill Gates was actively, if unsuccessfully, pushing the tablet concept long before Apple created a viable market with the introduction of the iPad several years back. Their attempts go back to 1991 with the release of “Windows for Pen Computing” an application that ran on Window 3.1 which never caught-on. A decade later they tried again, as USA Today reports:

“In 2002, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said these early tablet ventures were ‘almost painful to recall,’ but not to worry. He had something much better, a device that would fulfill ‘a dream that I and others have had for years and years,’ he said. It was Windows for XP Tablet PC Edition. This time, hardware makers like Hewlett-Packard Co., Samsung Electronics, Toshiba Corp. and Acer Group played along, producing tablet PCs.”

That, too, didn’t catch-on, nor did several other attempts made since. Now, with the huge success of the iPad and other tablets running Google’s open-source Android operating system, Microsoft is somewhat desperate to get serous traction with both tablets and smartphones. Although Windows continues to be the dominant operating system on traditional computers, that market has seen a sharp decline in growth as the general public has embraced tablets and phones as “good enough” computers.

Surface is scheduled to be released in about three months and will run on Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 designed specifically for the low powered ARM processors that are used in 95% of all tablets and smartphones. Microsoft has released no information on price, but most experts are saying this will be a high end item, with estimates ranging from $400 to $1,000.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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