Microsoft has managed to pull off a welcome surprise. Considering the software giant's poor track record selling consumer gadgets, few would have been surprised if it managed to produce another dud with its foray into the market for tablets. But Microsoft's Surface, which it introduced late Monday afternoon, shows it is getting the hang of it. However, with other firms well entrenched, producing just a decent offering probably isn't enough.
Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer certainly has good reason to try – in fact, the growth of mobile devices leaves it no choice. Sales of PCs are expected to be stagnant this year, according to research firm Gartner. Meanwhile, tablets are growing at a roughly 50-per-cent clip. The market is largely divvied up between Apple's iPad and those running Google's Android operating system, with others mopping up the rest. That leaves Microsoft out in the cold.
Unfortunately, producing consumer gadgets has never been Microsoft's forte. Sure, the Xbox is a hit game console. But its Zune music player was the object of popular derision and the company's smartphone aimed at social networking, the Kin, was killed less than three months after being introduced.
Happily, its range of tablets looks reasonably attractive. They're thin, lightweight and contain useful features, such as a cover that doubles as a stand and keyboard. Moreover, they will play well with the company's Office software, making them attractive to corporate customers.
Microsoft has also cleverly hedged its bets producing tablets that run either Intel or ARM processors. That means users can either opt for one that essentially replicates everything a PC does, or buy one with fewer applications and longer battery life.
Yet, there are more than a few worries. Microsoft glossed over discussion about battery life, price or when people can get their hands on them. Another concern is that producing the device may alienate PC allies such as Dell and HP. And the biggest worry of all is that the iPad and Android ecosystems have had several years head start. This means lots more users, apps and developers. To catch up, good may not be enough.