Microsoft may have finally cracked the convergence code with Surface tablets

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The gloves are off as Microsoft, for the first time, commits to a range of computers that bears its own name.

In a very Apple-like way Microsoft held a super-secret event in Los Angeles which got the Tech world speculating and claiming all sorts of inside info. Many were close, predicting a Microsoft tablet. The reality was far bigger than the hype suggested.

Microsoft launched a well-executed and extremely innovative range of tablets appropriately called Surface. The Microsoft Surface tablet is, in some ways, just the beginning of a new resurgence from the Redmond-based giant that has actually been in the pipes for a while now.

The strategies of Apple and Microsoft in our new, so-called post-PC world could not be more different. Apple broke the mould by leaping into the mobile world with the iPhone in 2007. Many were not convinced at the time if this was a wise move. How wrong they were.

The iPhone marked a turning point for Apple, and without that leap into the murky mobile waters, the iPad and the massive impact Apple has had on computing may never have happened. Microsoft on the other hand appeared to be sticking to a well-tried course of dominating the desktop, both at home and in the office with mobile computing a very secondary focus. Microsoft’s strategy now appears to contain the first sense of true convergence across all its platforms, from mobile to desktop.

Things have indeed changed significantly in less than five years. Most companies, not least Apple and now Microsoft, appear to be thinking mobile first. The new version of OS X, Apple’s desktop operating system, has many new features directly from its iOS mobile operating system. Many features are identical in functionality to the apps that run on the iPad and iPhone. Microsoft on the other hand has taken a completely different approach. Windows has been “completely reimagined”, to pinch a phrase directly from Microsoft marketing.

The reimagining of Windows with the release of Windows 8 is a make or break strategy. It may appear sudden, but in fact started years ago with a largely failed project called the Zune. The Zune digital media player was released in 2006 to compete with the Apple iPod. It featured a brand new fully touch friendly interface which became the underpinning of Windows Phone 7 and has now fully morphed into a brand new interface and, in fact, operating system featuring the Metro UI (user interface) in Windows 8.

The Metro UI could not be more different to anything that either Microsoft or Apple have produced in the past. OS X and Windows 7 had more similarities than differences, though many on both side would disagree. Windows 8 with Metro is a huge change, one that may cause serious consternation with the massive installed base of current Microsoft users. The benefit with breaking with the past, as Apple discovered with its iPhone, is that by starting with a clean slate so much more can be achieved, especially as hardware and user interfaces have moved completely away from keyboard and mouse, to touch, gesture, and moving forward, even voice. These are much more intuitive and human centric in approach and application.

With the launch of the Microsoft surface tablet, the path Microsoft has followed, in its quest to fully update not only its product line, but also its image, may have finally come full circle.

Windows 8 on your computer or laptop, and your Xbox in the lounge, and now on a tablet as well as on your mobile phone, completely closes the circle. The power of a unified interface, all running the same applications with a familiar look, feel, as well as functionality, is massive.

Microsoft also has all the necessary services both in the cloud, with SkyDrive, and in the enterprise space with Exchange, to fully integrate your entire computing requirements into one cohesive and more importantly pervasive platform across all devices.

As visionary and bold as Microsoft’s Surface tablet product is, Microsoft’s strategy has a major flaw, and that is apps. Apple has well over 500 000 apps available, and don’t forget Google with Android.

Microsoft may own the productivity suite market with Office, which will come to tablets in Metro App form, with the final launch of Windows 8. It does not however have any depth or scale in the general apps market that make the iPad, iPhone and Android devices so compelling. The app market overall, in my opinion, may have peaked, and integration and utility are now emerging as the new trends to watch. Microsoft still has a massive hill to climb in getting all the key apps up and running on Windows 8.

Microsoft Surface Tablets, both in Arm and Intel formats, are potentially the first products to pose a massive challenge to Apple’s iPad dominance, in the rapidly growing tablet market. The Microsoft Surface also addresses a key constraint in current tablets, that of productivity. Consumption of media was always a major strength of current tablets, Microsoft Surface tablets with their clever keyboard covers, and full Windows 8 functionality, may add the element of true productivity.

Challenges remain with Apples clear dominance under no immediate threat. Microsoft may well, in a year or two, fully emerge as the company that can truly compete with Apple, as computing converges on mobility by offering true productivity on tablet style devices. On the hardware front Microsoft has actually raised the bar. On the software front it may have also finally cracked the convergence code. My stance is let the games begin, competition keeps us all on our toes, and the mega foes of the computing world, Microsoft and Apple, are now fully engaged.

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