This week’s big news is the pending release of Microsoft’s Surface tablet, which is a major push for the company on several fronts. At a high level, Surface marks Microsoft’s re-entry into the tablet market, one that it helped create in the early 2000s, only to see limited acceptance — and eventually, Apple dominated the market with its launch of the iPad.

Superficially, this seems like another entry into the “Look, Ma, I have a tablet, too!” category, but it’s noteworthy because it’s Microsoft’s first foray into a major piece of hardware, one of the first “flagship” tablet-style devices running Windows 8, and the first major piece of hardware running Windows RT, the tablet-focused version of Windows 8 that’s targeted toward the optimized ARM-based processor.

Initial reports indicate that Microsoft has bet heavily on this particular tablet, producing an initial run of five million units at a starting price of $499 (USD) apiece. In my mind, this move also marks some boldness and risk-taking from a company that seemed content to give up on innovator status in the last few years, cashing checks from its desktop OS and Office suite rather than attempting to change computing as we know it.

Own it

While Microsoft has taken some flak for producing its own hardware, it’s a necessary move. As an owner of several past tablet PCs, the experience and good ideas represented by the platform were marred by poor driver support, inadequate batteries, high price tags, and a lack of interesting hardware.

Apple has long realized the benefit of tightly integrating hardware and software, and if Microsoft can successfully drive a hybrid strategy, whereby it releases flagship devices and maintains a cadre of hardware vendors filling in the gaps, some interesting things might happen. If nothing else, Microsoft has already set a high bar on the hardware front and will hopefully do for the Windows-based tablet what competition from the likes of the MacBook Air did for the ultralight PC laptop category.

Looking good

Microsoft has apparently also hired some industrial and graphics designers, a marked departure from the past when most of the visual tweaks to its products were geeky or more sizzle than steak. While the dramatic change to the Windows 8 interface has CIOs raising a skeptical eyebrow, it is certainly pushing computing in a different direction and represents far more bold thinking than pretty windows and animations.

Where it could all go wrong

There’s a lot to like about the moves Microsoft is making, but at this point, they are little more than pretty pictures, release candidate software, and marketing superlatives. There are no extensive, hands-on reviews of the Surface tablet at the time of this writing (although the device is slated to go on sale in just a few hours — on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012). So, the Windows 8 interface remains untried on a massive scale, and developers who are likely growing weary of the proliferation of tablet platforms now have another one to deal with.

These are all problems that have been routinely discussed, but a more nuanced one is the question of whether users can be bothered to jump aboard an entirely new platform that encompasses hardware and core OS functionality. I’ve talked to quite a few people, and many of them think that desktop- and laptop-type platforms represent the past. The majority of their computing interactions take place in browsers. Even in the corporate environment, Outlook and Office do the majority of the desktop-based work, and all the “action” happens in web or proprietary-client applications.

For these people, consumers and corporate customers, Windows 8 with its new interface represents an answer to an unasked question, with Windows 7 essentially “good enough.” Considering quite a few major companies still run the venerable Windows XP, Windows 8 may be a bridge too far.

One of the criticisms of the iPad, that it’s just a “big iPhone,” is also its biggest strength. The interface is no-frills and essentially gets out of the way so you can interact with your content and applications. Even with high-quality hardware, a new platform that’s completely different from anything, except perhaps Windows Phone, may be a tough sell to a public wary of the “platform du jour.”

While there are many unanswered questions around Surface and the raft of risks the platform presents, it’s exciting to see a resurgent Microsoft that’s breaking out of its rut, has learned a thing or two about design, and is willing to abandon decades-old computing conventions and partner relationships. Betting big has big risks, but quiet stagnation is equally risky and perhaps even more painful.

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