OK, let’s get under the surface of Surface…

Surface is Microsoft’s most ambitious attempt to crack the tablet market – and provide a proper rival to Apple’s iPad. Surface should not to be confused with the Microsoft’s tabletop touchscreen computing offering also previously known as Surface – which is now known as PixelSense.

What’s so exciting about Surface?

Possibly the most important thing about Surface is that Microsoft has taken charge of both the software and the hardware and is keen to point out that Surface is “conceived, designed and engineered entirely by Microsoft employees”.

Microsoft has designed its own hardware before of course, in the form of the Xbox and, er, the Zune, but mostly leaves hardware design to its partners.

That Microsoft has felt the need to step in with its own design suggests it has finally lost patience with the uninspired tablets its partners have released – and which have signally failed to trouble the iPad. It also reflects how important Microsoft thinks the tablet market will be in the post-PC future, especially as it arrives at the same time as Windows 8.

Tell me about the specs

The first thing to point out is that Surface comes in two flavours – one with an ARM processor running Windows RT, a slimmed-down version of Windows 8, and one with an Intel core processor, running Windows 8 Pro.

Surface for Windows RT will release at the same time as Windows 8, while the Windows 8 Pro model will be available about 90 days later. The Windows RT Surface goes on sale later this week, 26 October, which means the Pro model should arrive sometime in early 2013.

Surface for Windows RT weighs in at 676g and is 9.3mm thick – enough for a standard USB as well as Micro SD. It comes with Office 15 Apps and in 32GB and 64GB options. Surface for Windows 8 Pro is heavier at 903g and thicker at 13.5mm and comes in 64GB and 128GB versions.

Tell me more about the hardware

The tablets have a 10.6-inch, 16:9 widescreen HD display and come with two cameras – a front-facing camera and a rear one angled at 22 degrees to allow users to record events hands-free when using the tablet’s integrated stand.

Some elements of the design have created a bit of excitement, most notably the Touch Cover, a 3mm-thick magnetic cover that doubles as a pressure-sensitive keyboard. There is also the 5mm-thick Type Cover, which has moving keys for a more traditional typing feel. The tablet’s stand frees users from having to hold the device while watching movies, for example.

So why two models?

Microsoft is aiming at the business and consumer markets, which have very different requirements. And there is one important difference between the Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro devices: Windows RT machines will only run new Windows 8 apps and won’t be able to run older software.

Now that lack of backwards-compatibility clearly hasn’t hurt the iPad. But it means the success of the Windows RT device will be tied to how many developers build Windows 8 apps, just as part of the reason for the success of the iPad is the vibrant ecosystem of developers building for the platform.

So how much is it going to cost me?

Microsoft previously said pricing would be “competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PCs”.

Now the Surface RT pricing is in. It’s being sold in three packages – the 32GB tablet on its own for $499/£399, the 32GB model with a Touch Cover for $599/£479 and a 64GB version with Touch Cover for $699/£559. The Type Cover is another $129.99 /£109.99. That means the Surface RT is coming in at pretty much the same price as the iPad – and more expensive than something like the Galaxy Tab 2.

Pricing for the Surface Pro is expected later although Ultrabooks – the high-end of laptop design, according to Intel – can cost as much as $1,000.

Any predictions for how many Microsoft wants to sell?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft is building somewhere between three and five million Surface tablets this quarter. That might seem a lot, but in contrast Apple sold around 17m iPads in its last financial quarter.

Still, it seems that the Surface has attracted some early fans: it was made available for pre-orders earlier in October and the 32GB model is currently sold out in the UK, although Microsoft isn’t saying how many that means it has sold.
What do Microsoft’s partners think about Surface?

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s hardware partners aren’t overjoyed about the Surface because its existence undermines the authority of any Windows 8 tablet hardware they release.

Acer head JT Wang even went so far as to urge Microsoft to reconsider releasing Surface hardware, telling Microsoft via an interview in the Financial Times: “Think twice. It will create a huge negative impact for the ecosystem and other brands may take a negative reaction. It is not something you are good at so please think twice.”

Still, Surface tablets are only likely to account for a few million of the nearly 400 million Windows PCs sold in the next year, so is unlikely to cause a major rift. And many of Microsoft’s standard hardware partners are working on Windows RT tablets already.

What’s the enterprise view?

Surface is the iPad rival that businesses have been waiting for, according to TechRepublic’s CIO Jury. Enterprise IT organisations have been obliged to support the iPads that have flooded into business as part of the bring-your-own-device wave, but most IT departments are Microsoft shops, certainly when it comes to the desktop.

So having a tablet that fits with the rest of their enterprise IT architecture is one reason why CIOs are likely to welcome the Surface tablets. Still, not everyone in convinced, with one analyst house warning that Surface could end up being the new Zune.

Is the Surface a genuine iPad rival?

Microsoft is likely to find warm support from enterprise IT for the Surface, as there’s plenty of pent-up demand there. Encouraging developers to build Windows 8 apps will be another key element.

However it really needs to crack the consumer market if it is to challenge the iPad – hence the emphasis on wow features such as the VaporMG case, the sort of finish usually reserved for luxury watches.

The success of the Nexus 7 shows that consumers are willing to buy something that isn’t an iPad – but Microsoft needs to get the price right.

What’s the response so far?
The early reviews are in – with some very positive and some less so. It seems that the hardware has been well received, but the RT operating system and the lack of apps so far, has disappointed reviews. The lack of apps is something that is likely to change and the Surface Pro may have a smoother ride than the RT model – but is shows that Microsoft still has to a way to go before this is a success.
Does this mean we’ll be seeing more hardware from Microsoft?
Quite possibly – Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has already said that the company will make more hardware. The Surface Pro is on the way for early next year of course, and Ballmer told the BBC: “Is it fair to say we’re going to do more hardware? Obviously we are… Where we see important opportunities to set a new standard, yeah we’ll dive in.”

That might not be hugely welcome news for Microsoft’s hardware partners of course. But whether Microsoft really becomes a hardware player will depend on the reception of Surface.