After spending time with Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet, I was left with more questions than answers. The further I considered Microsoft’s tablet strategy, the more I wondered if it were genius or madness driving its recent moves. Depending on what we see in the next few months, it just might be the former.

Leaving the home court

Surface was most perplexing in that Microsoft aced the hardware of the device — an area most pundits, myself included, expected it to miss completely. The device was sleek and well-assembled, and it brought unique and noteworthy features to the table rather than simply trying to copy market leaders. If only the software were on par with the hardware, I’d gladly slip the Surface into my bag and leave the laptop at home for the majority of my work and personal travel.

The OS was particularly troubling, considering Microsoft essentially invented the tablet category a decade ago, only to let it languish until Apple ate its lunch and dominated the market in a matter of months. While all this is old news, and Windows RT remains what seems to be a compromised OS, there are some interesting things happening on the software front.

An Office for everyone

Microsoft began its life as an applications software company, achieving dominance in the desktop space through luck and tenacity. People often forget that Microsoft set out to build applications for a variety of platforms rather than create the one that would dominate desktop computing for a generation. While Microsoft has released its Office suite for some competing platforms, the most interesting missing links in the Office world are mobile versions of the software for iOS and Android. There have been enough rumors and rumblings about an iOS version of Office that the rumor has a measure of credibility.

Microsoft also seems a bit more pragmatic and less dogmatic than Apple, and it has released several applications for the iOS platform, from relatively innocuous photography applications to versions of its SkyDrive cloud-based file storage platform. SkyDrive is available for all major OSs, and Microsoft’s cloud strategy points toward open platforms rather than a walled garden like Apple’s iCloud. With a Microsoft-based cloud storage service already gaining traction on a variety of platforms, mobile versions of Office don’t seem as much of a stretch as they might have been a few months ago.

Returning to its roots around application software might not be a bad strategy for Microsoft. Clearly, Surface has not lit the world afire in its first incarnation, so launching popular applications on a variety of platforms would keeps Microsoft relevant in the enterprise and personal space, no matter which tablet device an enterprise ends up selecting.

There’s also the possibility of a halo effect should Microsoft deliver a quality mobile Office experience on a variety of platforms. The iPod music player and iPhone arguably sold more Mac computers than any ad campaign, and a suite of compelling software and services might make a case for a deeper Microsoft experience, especially in the enterprise.

The end of the platform

While the proclamations that the “desktop is dead” have not been as dire as predicted, many applications are shifting to the cloud- and browser-based interfaces. In mobile, especially, core application logic and data are cloud-based for most popular applications. Tablets and smartphones generally don’t have the “baggage” of legacy applications that have saddled our desktop computing experience, so in many ways, mobile operating systems are more likely to fade toward irrelevancy beyond running cloud-based applications. If Microsoft can rekindle its multi-platform application heritage and combine it with a strong hardware competency, it might successfully win the longer tablet war, even if its early efforts sputter.