On a wonderfully bright Monday afternoon in Hollywood, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s (MSFT) chief executive officer, appeared at an art and film studio to deliver what looks like Microsoft’s finest, most controversial product in ages. In fact, it’s a family of products—a line of “Surface” tablet computers aimed at both consumers and workers.
As it does with the Xbox, Microsoft has opted to make the Surface tablets—both hardware and software—on its own. This stands as a huge affront to Microsoft’s longtime PC partners. Making matters worse, the Surface products look far better than anything else the PC makers have shown to date on the tablet front. Even Apple (AAPL) has been put on notice, if the hoots and hollers from the event were any indication.
The first Surface device shown weighs about 1.5 pounds and is 9 mm thick. A second, the Surface Pro, is slightly thicker and heavier. Both tablets come with a built-in kickstand, so you can stand them up to watch movies and the like. Microsoft also did something innovative with its new tablet covers. It had them attach to the the tablets with a firm click and designed them to be keyboards. The Type Cover has keys printed into the cover while the slightly bigger Touch Cover has raised keys.
The keyboard/cover combo is a fantastic idea that immediately makes you question future laptop purchases. That’s yet a further blow against Microsoft’s PC buddies. When Windows 8 launches this fall, Microsoft will sell the tablets through its own online and retail stores and nowhere else. The company declined to reveal pricing details at the June 18 event.
In an interview afterward, Ballmer said Microsoft’s PC partners had been made aware of its plans. When asked to describe how they felt about Microsoft’s moves, Ballmer responded that he had used very precise language on stage and would not go beyond that. (He said nothing on stage that I recall as to how they felt.) As for plans to sell the tablets beyond Microsoft’s own channels, Ballmer again would not budge. “That’s all we are going to announce today,” he said. That’s that, then.
During his speech, Ballmer talked about the push and pull of software and hardware: Sometimes the hardware makers can’t keep up with the software makers’ innovation. So Microsoft decided to take matters into its own hands and showcase all that Windows 8 can do at a time when the company is feeling tremendous pressure from Apple. “This is a tool to surface your passions,” Ballmer said.
Steven Sinofsky, the head of Windows, followed Ballmer on stage and was visibly nervous. His voice shook, as did his hands—to the point that he wrecked a couple of touchscreen demos. Still, he returned again and again to the industrial design work Microsoft did to make the Surface products. Gushing about the kickstand, he said: “The hinged design is like that of the finest luxury car.” About the cover, he said, “Click. You heard that. It’s solid. It feels great in your hand, like a book. It just fits there.”
Microsoft designed 200 custom parts for the tablets and said that if you tried to cram a piece of sticky tape inside the device, it would bulge with imperfection. Steve Jobs would be proud.
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.