It would be foolish to write off Microsoft's new tablet as a weak iPad clone
Microsoft's annoucement last night of a new 'Surface' tablet computer has, in a fashion, achieved the level of kneejerk press attention normally mustered only for its key rival, Apple. Unlike an iProduct, though - where even the prospect of an incremental upgrade produces acres of newsprint packed with breathless excitement - the instant reaction to the Surface has been one of, largely, bemusement.
"Why would someone buy this instead of an iPad?", echoed dozens blogs and Twitter. But that's not really the question. A more useful one would be: why would someone buy this instead of a laptop?
And the answer to that is obvious: it's smaller and lighter but, unlike the iPad, runs the same programs.
Ever since Microsoft's announcement at CES 2011 that Windows 8 would run on devices powered by less-power-hungry ARM chips, and the unveiling of its 'Metro' touch interface, we've been waiting to see Windows 8 appear on a touch device that looks genuinely useful. The Surface - which will be avaialble in both ARM and traditional Intel (x86) versions - looks like a promising step in the right direction.
ARM versions should benefit from longer battery life that, coupled with a forthcoming special version of Microsoft Office, will suit business users who might previously have used an ultraportable laptop. And companies who rely on specialised business software - for sales, for example - can pick up an Intel version that will run the exact same program on a device with far less bulk, and which is actually usable when propped up on an aeroplane tray table.
What's more, unlike an iPad, the Surface will play nicely with other devices: with a standard USB port it should be simple to plug in storage, a keyboard or a printer without paying Apple's dock-connector-tax.
So, for the interim at least, the best product for people who want an iPad - something to surf the web, read newspapers or magazines and download a few apps - remains, yes, the iPad. In the meantime, Microsoft has carved off in an interesting direction with a tablet that looks genuinely work-friendly - and in a world that's already flooded with tedious me-too media tablet clones, that's surely something to be applauded.
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