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The timing of the Microsoft’s announcement of Surface was particularly peculiar. “Hands-on” demos were decidedly hands-off. Microsoft didn’t allow anyone to use the SmartCover keyboards — bizarre, given that this is the most innovative feature of Surface (and a real differentiator between the iPad). It’s obvious now that Surface is not ready.
So why did Microsoft unveil something that it isn’t launching yet?
The answer is Google. It is expected to launch a Nexus tablet to showcase the “best of Android” at its I/O conference which runs from 27-29 June in San Francisco.
Microsoft simply had to “launch” Surface.
It doesn’t matter that it’s not ready. It doesn’t matter that Microsoft is now competing with its hardware partners, breaking a more than 30-year business model.
Of course it was a secret project. The clues are in the utter lack of detail provided by Microsoft on Monday. No pricing details. No indication of availability. No working SmartCovers. No hardware specs.
And the biggest sign of all that this has been a well-kept secret? A lack of retail partners. This is not about Microsoft wanting to only sell Surface at its own retail outlets and online. It hasn’t got to the distribution part yet (just as it hasn’t finalised the pricing model). Do you think executives at Best Buy are not chomping at the bit to sell this, now that they’ve seen it? Do you honestly believe that Surface will only be available at two dozen-odd Microsoft stores when it ships later this year?
The industry’s genuinely surprised that PC makers didn’t know about Surface. Really? Microsoft pulled this move straight out of Apple’s playbook. Remember iMessage? FaceTime over 3G/4G? Mobile operators found out about this when we did, during Apple’s keynotes.
It had to be a secret. Especially since Microsoft is busy transitioning its classic “PC” base to multiple platforms. Surface is the PC.
Microsoft’s strength is the most dominant installed base and ecosystem in the world: Windows. It’s pitched Surface as a consumer tablet, but given the consumerisation of technology, Microsoft shouldn’t be surprised when enterprise customers come knocking. There is real demand for a “proper” Windows tablet in the enterprise space. Especially the Surface Pro with full Windows 8 running on an Intel processor.
So we have a real “competitor” to the iPad at last (well, if this ships and if the keyboard actually works as well as its hyped up to). No matter how you want to dress this up, Surface isn’t an iPad “killer”. Yet. The market is still in its infancy.
Right now it’s aiming squarely at Android tablets, which command around 30% of the US market. But the Kindle Fire (which runs on a forked version of Google’s software) has around half of Android’s market share. This is clearly a game Microsoft believes it can win. And winning right now doesn’t mean surpassing the iPad.
The velocity in the technology space is astonishing. Remember just five years ago when Microsoft shipped software, Apple sold Macs and iPods and Google did search?
Today, Microsoft is now a software, mobile, search and hardware company.
Today, Apple is now a software, hardware, mobile and search company.
Today, Google is now a search, software, mobile and hardware company.
There are huge stakes in this war. Right now Google’s stuck in a corner, fending off assaults from any number of attackers. I’m not certain Larry Page gambled on having to fight off both Apple and Microsoft in the tablet space. There was always the view that if Microsoft did anything in tablets, it would be Xbox-focused (and that is coming). But the Windows 8-everywhere strategy is unfolding as the Redmond giant said it would.
And this war is about far more than just tablets. Mobile remains a key front on which battles are being fought.
Next up, Microsoft smartphones?