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Microsoft's Surface tablet vs. the iPad: Seven challenges

If Microsoft is going to take on Apple in the tablet wars, here are the key questions that need to be ironed out.


Microsoft came out with all guns blazing yesterday with its Surface tablets. Or did it?

The perceived success or failure of what was shown is obviously subjective, and comes down to whether or not you believe in what Microsoft is showing. Moreover, can Microsoft's strategy with the Surface -- and all Windows 8 tablets, for that matter -- succeed in not just being a No. 2 to the iPad, but in being a true iPad rival?

As a user of both the iPad and previous Windows tablets, I think it comes down to these key points.

Keyboard/touch-pad productivity
The Surface event spent a large amount of time on the Touch Cover and Type Cover, innovative Smart Cover-like accessories that have a soft or physical keyboard and, in the case of the Type Cover, a touch pad bonded to one side.

The iPad can support a wide variety of Bluetooth keyboards and cases like the similar Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, but no touch pad or mouse. That hampers the iPad's utility as a true laptop replacement, but would Microsoft's product make for a vastly improved experience? There's a big difference between a good keyboard and touch pad and a bad one: many Netbooks weren't great productivity tools for the same reason.


Apple's App Store gives access to every iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad app, a catalog that leads the tablet pack. The iPad has also spawned a number of iPad-optimized Web sites and Web apps that work via Safari. Microsoft's tablets take two tacks: the Windows RT versions only run Metro apps, while the Windows 8 tablets run older Windows applications as well. The Surface RT tablet needs to build a convincing catalog of apps, while for the Windows 8 tablet Microsoft needs to make sure that older applications are updated to run well on newer touch-driven software. Windows 7 tablets faced that same usability gulf when running pre-existing software, and the results often weren't pretty.

That consumer-targeted Windows RT Surface tablet needs to be affordable, and cheaper than an iPad; or, better for the same price, if that can be accomplished. The Windows 8 Surface tablet has two challenges: competition with the iPad, and with ultrabooks. Many Windows ultrabooks cost as little as $799. Can the Surface compete at a reasonable price?

OS: Doing it all, versus doing some things well
Apple's iPads run iOS while MacBooks run OS X, and the two approach each other without meeting or sharing apps. The disadvantage is that an iPad can't be a true Mac replacement. Windows 8 tablets are full-fledged computers capable of running both tablet apps and full computer applications. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft is ahead of the game or muddying the waters. Meanwhile, the Surface RT only runs apps, like the iPad.

Consumer/Pro split
Apple's been successful at making one line of iPads, with the only differences being 4G and storage. Microsoft's twin set of tablets -- one with beefier specs and full Windows compatibility, the other more like an iPad -- could fracture the decision-making process. Apple has MacBook Pros at higher prices and with more capabilities, but all MacBooks run the same type of OS; they don't split it like the Surface does.


What about ultrabooks?
How do these tablets relate to the recent run of ever-improving Windows ultrabooks, especially when Microsoft is selling the Surface as a "PC that's also a tablet"? Is there a coming showdown, or can Windows PCs support a myriad of new forms at once? The iPad coexists with the MacBook Air, but neither currently claims it's doing the job of the other.

The screen
The RT and Windows 8 Surface tablets shown off yesterday look like they'll have different resolutions: one 720p-level, the other 1080p. The third-gen iPad has a far crisper Retina Display, although the iPad 2 still has a 720p-level screen. How long will it be before Microsoft tries an ultrahigh-res screen on the Surface, and what will it cost?

Okay, I said seven, but here's an eighth to consider: will it be fun? The iPad has earned a place in homes because of how easy and fun it is to use. Microsoft hasn't often been thought of as a "fun" company, although it's had great success with the Xbox 360 and Kinect. Microsoft needs to harness some of that magic for the Surface, or be patient enough to find a way to get it into the Surface soon enough.