Last night Microsoft unveiled a new line of Surface tablet computers, which will run Windows 8 and feature a cover with a built-in keyboard. Microsoft has fully developed both the hardware and software for the new devices, making a break from the company’s usual policy of only developing and licensing software. The Surface tablets have a standard size and weight, and promise an HD 16:9 display. Each tablet has a magnesium kickstand for standing support, as well as a USB and HDMI port. The two different models reflect the type of OS installed. Surface RT will come in either 32 or 64 GB models and will feature standard tablet applications, while the slightly larger Surface Pro can be either 64 or 128 GB and will contain the full Windows 8 OS.
At the moment the largest amount of hype surrounds the cover with built-in keyboard. These also come in two styles, one with pressure sensitive areas corresponding to keys and the other with physically raised keys, and multiple colors. One of the largest drawbacks to Apple’s widely successful iPad tablet has been the difficulty of typing on the large touch screen keyboard, so this feature is sure to be a huge selling point for the Surface. However, I feel it is only a matter of time before Apple releases a similar style physical keyboard that is compatible with its iPads. Or, if Microsoft is feeling particularly conniving, perhaps they will license the technology to Apple directly. At the conference last night, Microsoft did not allow anyone to actually type on the keyboards, so it also still remains to be seen how the devices function in practice.
However, the most intriguing aspect of the Surface for me is its ability to run the full version of the Windows 8 operating system. I have predicted for the last few years that personal tablet computers will eventually replace laptops and PCs. For this to happen, all applications that could be run on a PC must be available on the tablet, and a mouse and keyboard must be useable. By combining Windows 8 with the Surface, that might happen in the very near future.
The main drawback I noticed in this vision becoming a reality is the lack of a file system on current tablet OSs. Apple’s iOS, for example, stores data within each individual application, not in a globally accessible structure. For more “hard-core” computer users such as software developers, a file system of some sort will probably be a necessity and very difficult to break away from. Large strides have been taken to abstract away from file system architectures, as seen by the gradual fusion of features between Apple’s Mac OS X and iOS, which will most likely be combined into one OS within the next two to three years. Use of the Cloud to store files and personal information has also become prevalent, and is almost definitely the future solution for application data storage. In the largest leap forward to a combined model yet, it looks like Microsoft may be the first horse out of the gate by running their full Windows 8 OS on the Surface. If the OS (which still has a lot of unknowns itself) functions well as a mobile system, the Surface could very probably be the first tablet that contains the full functionality and usability of a traditional computer.
While the Surface looks incredibly promising and revolutionary (on the surface), a lot remains to be seen and answered. Microsoft did not reveal any specific pricing models or a potential release date, and was also mute on how the tablets would connect to the Internet. Additionally, there is little information on applications developed for the devices. And as its features reflect current major trends in the computer industry, I feel it is only a matter of time before Apple unveils its response. Whether the Surface ends up a commercial hit or flop, it has certainly sparked a lot of thought and discussion on how tablets will shape, or perhaps become, the next generation of computer systems.