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Microsoft representatives hold a new Surface tablet computer as it is unveiled by Microsoft in Los Angeles, California, June 18, 2012.DAVID MCNEW/Reuters

Microsoft is launching a tablet called Surface to compete with Apple's iPad in the rapidly growing mobile device market.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled the tablet at a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday. The Surface is designed to help Microsoft launch Windows 8, the latest version of its flagship operating system, expected to hit stores in the fall. It also gives Microsoft a means of cashing in on the growing tablet market, which has slowly but surely siphoned sales from the traditional desktop and laptop computer segments.

"We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience, hardware and software, are considered and working together," Mr. Ballmer said. "We wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation."

If it succeeds, the Surface could prove to be the most important piece of hardware Microsoft has ever built, giving the company a means to cash in on the tablet market as consumers increasingly choose mobile devices over desktop computers.

The original Surface, designed by Microsoft in 2008, was a multi-touch computer about the size of a living room table. It was built to be used mostly by businesses, such as retail stores and hotels. The tablet incarnation, revealed Monday, weighs just 676 grams, is 9.3-millimetres thick and comes with a 10.6-inch screen. It also features a built-in kickstand and a magnetic cover that doubles as a touchscreen keyboard.

The Surface puts Microsoft back into the consumer hardware market, where its track record is very mixed. The Xbox gaming console, for example, has become one of the most popular gaming platforms on the planet – a means for Microsoft to beam all kinds of entertainment options into its customers' living rooms. But other hardware projects, such as the Zune MP3 player and the Kin mobile phone, ended up being commercial flops.

Mimicking Apple's approach, Microsoft kept the details of its Surface tablet announcement secret until the last moment. Journalists invited to the event weren't even informed of the address until the day of the announcement.

Although it's too early to tell whether consumers will take to the Surface, the tablet's launch comes at a time when Microsoft is getting ready to reboot the most important piece of software in its business.

This fall, Microsoft is expected to release the latest version of its Windows operating system, Windows 8. Unlike most previous versions of the software, Windows 8 is designed primarily to run on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Microsoft rival Apple currently dominates the tablet market with its iPad line. There are some competitors, including devices that run on the Android operating system developed by Google, but none have managed to put a dent in Apple's market share.

With its own hardware, Microsoft hopes to get in on the tablet market earlier than it did in the smartphone market. For years, Apple also dominated that market with its iPhones. Recently, some Android-based phones have gained traction, and Microsoft has partnered with Nokia to launch high-end phones running on Windows software. Even though the phones received generally positive reviews, Windows has yet to catch up with Android-based phones and Apple's iPhones, which together still make up the vast majority of the overall smartphone market.

Microsoft has a mixed history with mobile devices. It previously tried to compete with the iPod MP3 player by launching the Zune in 2006. Despite combining it with a media store, the Zune failed to gain much traction, and in late 2011 Microsoft announced it would discontinue the line.

In 2008, rumours surfaced that Microsoft was working on a device codenamed the Courier, a dual touchscreen tablet that opened like a book. However that project appeared to have never left the prototype stage, and is believed to have been cancelled altogether in 2010.

An in-house tablet allows Microsoft to leverage the power of Windows, which is by far the best-selling commercial operating system in the world. However such a move is not without complications. In the smartphone market, Google initially allowed just about any company to develop phones using its Android operating system. But when Google attempted to co-build its own branded Android smartphone, some phone-makers wondered whether they would be able to compete with such a device on an even playing field, given that only one Android phone on the market would actually be co-developed in close collaboration with the company that designed Android.

With an in-house tablet, Microsoft faces similar concerns. At annual technology conferences, the company frequently shows off tablet-like devices running Windows software, but such devices have traditionally been built by partners such as Hewlett-Packard. Now, Microsoft will have a device that could potentially compete with products designed by some of those partners.

But there are also plenty of advantages for Microsoft. A tablet would not only give the company a flagship product to tie to its Windows 8 launch later this year, but would also fit Microsoft's greater strategy of synchronizing all of its consumers' digital entertainment options across a variety of its devices. For example, a tablet could also function as a controller for the Xbox gaming system, allowing users to stream media wirelessly from their mobile devices to their TVs. A super-powered controller would also allow Microsoft to extend the life of its Xbox console by giving customers yet another peripheral devices, alongside the Kinect motion-detection hardware, which jump-started Xbox sales when it was released in 2010.