A massive technology company launched a new
tablet computer this week to rave reviews, and if you're thinking
it's Apple you'd only be half right.
The iPad enterprise did in fact launch a whole host of new gadgets this week, including the captivating iPad Mini, which to many reviewers felt a lot more comfortable to hold and use than its larger sibling.
But Apple's old nemesis Microsoft was also wooing the masses with the launch of Windows 8 and the Surface RT, the first computer that the PC software giant has ever manufactured and put its name to.
That in itself is a sign of how importantly Microsoft views its new effort, which according to analysts and company insiders, is crucial for Microsoft's chances of gaining a foothold in a sector that's rapidly eroding the ubiquity of the trusty old PC.
So how did Microsoft do in its first effort at making its own computer? The opinions are far from uniform, but there are certainly enough rave reviews out there to suggest that Microsoft may at last have the makings of a device that can challenge Apple and Google for a piece of the touch-screen tablet pie.
ZDNet's Ed Bott called the hardware "drop-dead gorgeous," saying the build quality was "exceptional" and summing up its appeal in one simple sentence: "It's more than an iPad, and less than a PC."
Among its key advantages over Apple's genre-defining iPad is its ability to connect up to external devices like hard-drives, printers, and flash memory cards and its support for Adobe Flash. The Surface also appeals to users with its beautifully integrated cover and keyboard, which make typing a lot easier than tapping letters on the screen. Just as important for many business users, it also includes a version of Microsoft Office, though some may be disappointed that Microsoft Outlook, the email software, is not part of that package.
The big drawback, ironically for a company that built its fortune on software, are the Surface's programmes. Though Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer boasted of 10,000 apps already released for the Surface, rival tablets from Apple and those running on Google's Android operating system boast hundreds of thousands of apps.
"Sleek tablet but clumsy software," was the conclusion of the New York Times' David Pogue. He called the Surface a "spectacularly designed" device that aims much higher than a "mere iPad rip-off," but said he was let down by such things as the absence of speech recognition, automatic backup to the cloud and other standard tablet functions.
"Surface is a different vision of computing than we've seen from Apple," added Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Surface is a new category of device. It's Microsoft's vision of computing evolved."
The jury is still out on whether Microsoft has done enough to gatecrash Apple's party. Pre-orders for the Surface did sell out on Microsot's online store and it can certainly compete on price and specifications. But it still has a huge lag to Apple in apps and branding.
There are signs however that some of the shine is beginning to come off Apple.
While critics loved the iPad mini, many said that it failed to justify the hefty premium compared to other 7-inch tablets. They were also critical of Apple's decision to introduce a fourth generation iPad a mere six months after the introduction of the third generation device. Finally, there is concern that the Mini will cannibalize sales of the larger iPad models.
The most important thing for Microsoft to remember, however, is that dominance in the tech wars is always temporary. Apple may now rule the tablet wars, but if Microsoft manages to attract developers and outfit the Surface with a strong app ecosystem it may yet challenge Apple's dominance.
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