When he was alive and leading Apple product announcements, Steve Jobs had a moment that was nearly as signature as his black turtleneck and jeans. He would get to what seemed to be the end of the event and then say “Oh, and one more thing.”
Microsoft’s unexpected announcement that they would be selling a Windows 8 tablet under their own brand had its own ‘one more thing’ moment even though they did not use those words. Of course the announcement started with the tablets themselves, one with an ARM processor running Windows 8 RT and a thicker unit running a low voltage Intel Ivy Bridge i5 processor and the full Intel version of Windows. Both versions have a built in kickstand for sitting on a desk. Nice, but not ground breaking. Then they demonstrated a magnetic cover that would act as a smart cover to put the tablet in suspend mode when closed. Yes, looked like a pretty straight Apple copycat.
Then came the “one more thing” moment: “We said, why not do something with this surface? We made it a full multi-touch keyboard.” What?!
The touch cover is a pressure sensitive typing surface just 3 millimeters thick. Suddenly the Microsoft Surface said “Tablet or ultrabook? Why not both at the same time?”
There are keyboard/cover combinations for the iPad, but they are not nearly as thin or well integrated as this. There are also other hybrid detachable tablet/laptop systems, but again not as thin or well integrated.
Some Apple fans are already noting that keyboards, although available, are not popular accessories with iPad users. They are missing an important point. The iPad grew out of the iPhone. iOS and its apps are built around the idea that no keyboard is expected.
The Windows 8 tablets draw from desktop and laptop computers. They will be able to run a full gamut of Windows programs meant to typically have a keyboard available. The presence of a real keyboard will be much more welcome.
But much more than that, the touch cover is the one feature that makes the Surface tablet (i) less of an effort to play catch-up with the iPad and (ii) more like a decision to make something very new and different.
To have Microsoft actually building a computer under their nameplate is a radical departure for the company. It is an important step, especially since HP dropped the slate tablet in favor of WebOS after they bought Palm (which proved to be a disaster). In addition Microsoft may have felt that the other PC vendors were not being very bold in their designs. Eventually Microsoft may be willing to license the technology of the touch cover to their longstanding partners such as Dell and HP to make the Surface the template for a whole range of devices, which is consistent with Microsoft’s past practice (e.g. the Microsoft Mouse).
Here is Microsoft’s flashy introduction to the Surface.