Microsoft takes big gamble with tablet unveil

This week Microsoft unveiled its first ever family of tablets, called Surface, to the world – a move the company hopes will start a ‘romance’ with consumers to rival Apple and Android devices.

Seb Joseph

The launch of the new line of tablets was crammed with enough pomp and circumstance that would have made the events teams at Apple proud. Such was the air of secrecy ahead of the launch, that you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was another big reveal from the iPhone maker a mere seven days after its conference in San Francisco.

There was the mysterious invitation, enigmatic emails, rampant speculation from analysts not to mention the trendy Los Angeles setting. And then at about 4.20pm on Monday the 18 June the software giant revealed its answer to Apple’s dominance in the tablet market.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Microsoft’s obvious homage to its long-time rival was no accident. But will the devices have enough features and more importantly the support from developers to really play in this space? Aside from its Xbox entertainment brand, Microsoft has struggled when marketing its own hardware.

That’s right. The Surface is being produced in-house. But while it may look as though Microsoft is also looking to take on long term PC manufacturing partners such as Dell and Hewlett Packard, its more risky for Microsoft to leave hardware production to third parties. The decision means that Microsoft will have more options and can assess what works and what doesn’t.

The business is “ready to move in any direction if things don’t go their way”, according to one analyst from fund firm McAdams Wright Ragen.

Microsoft has not had a competitor for the iPad since Apple released the original version in 2010. During this time Apple’s tablet has enjoyed phenomenal success, selling 55 million by the end of 2012, so it’s clear why Microsoft’s – potentially risky – foray away from its core business of computer software has been done now.

The company hopes to differentiate the device from the competition through its range of in-built computing applications like Office, Powerpoint and Photoshop. With the iPad becoming the popular choice for travelling, many people are still holding on to their laptops. That could change with Surface as it arguably offers the familiarity the iPad doesn’t have.

Analysts have mulled that the range will be positioned as more of a serious business tablet for professionals, much in the same way Blackberry’s were, than as an all singing and all dancing plaything. Indeed, the designers have eschewed the curves and sass of the iPad and gone for something that’s a bit utilitarian with its hard lines, keyboard and heat vents.

If the company can nail the experiential marketing tactics and convey the brand stories it spoke about at this week’s Cannes Lions festival then the Surface device combined with the Windows 8 operating system have the potential to seize a new segment of the market.

Interestingly, the company made no mention of its Xbox console during the Surface’s grand reveal, which is surprising given how Microsoft is trying to make it the centre of its entertainment offering.

It’s arguable that the console is Microsoft’s most desirable consumer property. Since the launch of the first Xbox in 2001 the brand has gone from being one associated with utility and office software to one with entertainment and gaming. A Windows tablet that can tap into this already thriving online Xbox Live community could create potential growth opportunities for the fledgling product, if not become a legitimate competitor to the iPad.

That’s not to mention how Skype, acquired by Microsoft last May, fits into the equation, if at all. The possibilities are boundless just as long as Microsoft does not try to be Apple.

Microsoft attempted to take on Apple with its Zune digital media player a few years back, which didn’t go so well. The brand was shut down last October just five years after it was launched.

Things appear different this time however, as Microsoft is putting its upcoming Windows 8 operating system at the centre of a multi-platform strategy across all its consumer and business devices, meaning its consumer reach is now unmatched.

It may not be the iPad killer or the Android-annihilator labelled by some, but Surface could just be the brand that ushers in a new dawn for Microsoft.

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