Microsoft's Surface tablets: What experts are saying

It's still vaporware, but most pundits expect it will be a game-changer for the software giant if it materialises

While nearly a week has passed since Microsoft announced its Surface tablets, details about the slates remain sketchy. What isn't sketchy, though, are the strong opinions of technology watchers about the new devices.

Without doubt, the Surface tablets -- one line running Windows RT, the other running Windows 8 -- have their fans and detractors, but most acknowledge the move will be a game-changer for Microsoft, whether it's successful or it falls flat on its face.

Sure, Microsoft has made hardware in the past with mixed success, but Surface is something different, Joshua Topolsky argues in The Verge. "The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to make a break with its history -- a history of hardware partnerships which relied on companies like Dell, HP, or Acer to actually bring its products to market," he wrote.

"That may burn partners in the short term," he continues, "but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story."

How clear that story will be remains to be seen, however. The iPad is a single product. Surface will be two products running operating systems designed for different processors. That's bound to create confusion among some tablet buyers.

On the other hand, Microsoft's new tablet designs could bring a level of rationality to the non-iPad market that has been unseen thus far, contends Joanna Stern, of ABC News.

"Other hardware manufacturers will still make Windows 8 tablets, laptops, desktops, and crazy computers but Microsoft's Surface will be the reference design; it is the pinnacle of how Microsoft envisions its software and the hardware working together," she writes. "It sets the bar higher for the HPs, Dells, and other computer makers of the world."

Whether Surface can compete for market share with the iPad has also been a popular topic of discussion since the platform's unveiling on June 18. Its prospects among business users looks promising to Ced Kurtz, of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "Business technology people know how to manage Microsoft networks and probably would prefer integrating Microsoft products to Apple ones," he writes.

However, IT people have less say today on what devices employees use on the job than they have in the past, as the "Bring Your Own Device" movement gains strength in many organizations. In that case, the consumer play will be very important for Surface.

Microsoft can do well there, too, Kurtz argues, but it needs to create an ecosystem for Surface that's similar to the one for the iPad. "If Microsoft can use its considerable muscle to generate this kind of environment for Surface, it has a shot," he notes.

That's something that Microsoft has done before, although it hasn't always been successful at it, according to Don Sears of CNN Money. "There are plenty of examples of failed elements, from the Zune MP3 player to the dismal Kin phone," he writes. "But, overwhelmingly, Microsoft has proven it can create a vibrant and profitable ecosystem."

He also points out that Surface's success need not be measured exclusively by how it fares against the iPad. The product is designed to compete against tablets running Google's Android operating system, which have fared miserably in the market compared to the iPad, and the emerging ultrabook platform, with its premium on thin, light computing.

Critics of Surface, though, say the concept was flawed from the drawing board. It has an identity crisis because it can't decide if it's a tablet or a laptop, asserts Jay Yarrow, of Business Insider. At the reported price of $600, it's going to cost too much, too, he adds.

Pricing is also a concern of Eric Mack, of Cnet, as well as low battery life and WiFi only connectivity. There's also a question of whether the tablets will be as worry free as their Apple competitors, especially following the flub that occurred during the products' introduction.

Beyond the physical aspects of Surface, a psychological element may be the most difficult obstacle of all to the success of Microsoft's tablet, as Ashlee Vance observes in Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Microsoft making hardware is not a natural action," he writes. "It's what the company does in times of desperation. With the release of Windows 8 looming, Microsoft was indeed desperate for a hardware company to do something to blunt Apple's runaway tablet machine. The Surface tablet represents an indictment of the entire PC and device industry, which has stood by for a couple of years trying to mimic Apple with a parade of hapless, copycat products."

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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John P. Mello Jr.

PC World (US online)

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