Microsoft Surface: Not really a tablet or a laptop

If Microsoft's new Surface device is successful, it will create a new category, something between Apple's iPad and notebook computers made by its partners.

Steven Sinofsky talks up Microsoft's Surface tablet at the company's unveiling event at Pier 57 in New York. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

NEW YORK -- Much has been speculated about how well the new Microsoft Surface will fare in the tablet world, particularly against Apple's iPad.

But if consumers flock to the Surface, it won't be because it's an alternative to the iPad. Microsoft's vision for the Surface goes well beyond the traditional tablet market. The company is betting that consumers will want to use the keyboard it's designed for the Surface to create documents, annotate pictures, and more.

And yet, the Surface, which Microsoft launched here today, isn't really a laptop either. The version that hits its New York store at 10 p.m. tonight and elsewhere at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow won't run most legacy Windows applications. And, of course, it can be used without a keyboard to surf the Web and watch videos.

"Is it a tablet? Is it a laptop? What category does it go in?," Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky said at the launch event. "It's not just a tablet, but it's the best tablet I've ever used It's not just a laptop, but it's the best laptop I've ever used."

If Microsoft succeeds, in reality, it will create a new category. Surface is something between tablet and a laptop.

"Surface is a different vision of computing than we've seen from Apple," Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "Surface is a new category of device. It's Microsoft's vision of computing evolved."

That presents a challenge for Microsoft. It needs to explain to consumers why this device is better than, say, an iPad, of which Apple has sold more than 100 million units.

"Now Microsoft has to explain why different is better," Gartenberg said.

Much of the sales job will lie in the craftsmanship of the new Surface. Panos Panay, the general manager of the Surface team at Microsoft, went into great detail today about how the Touch Cover keyboard snaps into the device. He talked about the three custom hinges on the kickstand that prop the Surface up for watching videos.

"We want to make sure when you buy Surface, you understand how premium it is," Panay said.

Those features create something that's a bit more than a tablet and a bit less than a laptop.

 

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