Microsoft's announcement it was entering the tablet computer market with a new line of device surprised technology journalists around the world.
Steve Ballmer, chief executive of the world's biggest software company, called a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday to detail the touch-sensitive Surface and Surface Pro tablet computers that will run the Windows 8 operating system.
It's too early to say when the new line will hit the shelves, but October is likely.
Windows 8's touch sensitive user interface called Metro is designed to give the same user experience on desktop, laptop and tablet computers, so I was not surprised to hear Microsoft was breaking a 30-year-old business model and getting into computer hardware, other than keyboards, mice, webcams and headsets, as well as software.
Up until now Microsoft has licensed Windows to the likes of Hewlett-Packard, the world's biggest computer manufacturer and other manufacturers like it. It's also sold its software off the shelf at retailers such as Dick Smith Electronics.
When HP told me, at its Global Influencers Summit in Shanghai last month, that it was working on Windows 8 tablets for the business sector but not the consumer sector I wondered why they refused to talk further. Now I suspect they had a whiff of Microsoft's plans and were sworn to secrecy.
I'd been thinking Microsoft needed to get into the hardware game to take Apple on with it's iPad. Especially as it was Microsoft founder Bill Gates' idea – see Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
The iPad has helped Apple grow its revenue beyond Microsoft's, but Microsoft still rules the personal computer roost with about 90 per cent of computers running one version or another of Windows while Apple has about 5 per cent of that market.
I was going to ask Microsoft why it hadn't entered the hardware market next week when I arrive in Amsterdam for a Windows 8 event. Now it looks like I'll be asking for a hands-on with one of these Surface devices. And I'll tell you why. The tablet computers already out there, the iPad and Android devices, are designed for content consumption and not content creation. They're great for watching movies, listening to music and browsing the internet for the latest news and they're easier to chuck into a bag than a laptop.
They're even OK for checking email and doing other rudimentary tasks. But you'll be sorely disappointed if you want to be ultra creative with such devices. That's why I spent $500 on a low-powered netbook. More of that in Me and my gadget next week.
The Microsoft Surface and Surface Pro will change all that, offering the convenience of the portability of a tablet device with the ability to run any software written for the Windows operating system.
Looking at the Surface specifications, Microsoft Office applications like Excel, Publisher, Outlook, PowerPoint and Word will work faster than ever. They don't run on the iPad or Android devices.
And the Surface, like other Windows 8 computers, will also run Adobe Creative Suite 6, at the professional end of the market, and Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, at the consumer end of the market.
Windows 8 also has an applications store and developers are flat out writing applications especially for it.
The Surface is a bold and exciting move for Microsoft and for the market, and if marketed properly should be a game changer.
- © Fairfax NZ News