It's not Microsoft's first try at a tablet

Microsoft tablets

Credit: Microsoft / Getty Images

The 2002 Microsoft Tablet PC, left, had a lot more buttons than the Microsoft Surface tablet introduced this week.




Posted on June 19, 2012 at 2:43 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 19 at 9:38 PM

Is Microsoft Surface a worthy iPad competitor?

Ten years ago, Microsoft whiz kid Bill Gates unveiled a new product that resembled a flat-screen computer monitor.

"I can switch the screen on this, take it out and carry it around," explained company spokesman Steve Guggenheimer, who demonstrated the device for WFAA's Computer Corner  in June of 2002.  "I can use it at my desk just like a monitor, but when I want to pick it up and go with it, I can use it anywhere I want to go."

The Microsoft Tablet PC wasn't exactly dainty (at least by today's standards) and unlike the iPad and its brethren, you couldn't touch the screen to make it work — it required a special pen.

So yes, Microsoft's tablet was first, but it wasn't particularly successful with consumers (although you might have occasionally seen a doctor clutching a Microsoft tablet).

Fast-forward to 2010, when Apple altered the mobile landscape with the iPad — compact, light, and stylus-free.

Apple figured out what people wanted and convinced them that they needed one.

The iPad now dominates the category, sharing the rest of the market with touch screen tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Tab lineup, Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook — all of which are powered by Google's popular Android operating system.

So how does Microsoft Surface, the company's just-announced tablet, fit in?

Almost everyone has a desktop or notebook computer (or both) at home and at the office, and almost everyone's computer is running some flavor of Microsoft Windows.

And don't forget that Microsoft has also sold more than 24 million Xbox game systems, which occupy prime real estate in living rooms around the world.

But not everybody owns an iPad (yet).

Microsoft sees this audience of new tablet owners as theirs to win with a handheld device that can interact with all of the familiar Microsoft computer and gaming products, sharing music, movies, TV shows and information.

Surface will also appeal to business people who want a tablet with a keyboard that is happy to play ball with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications.

Microsoft recognized that it needed Surface (or something like it) to help shore up its share of the computing universe, which is being eroded by devices controlled by Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems. As more users spend more time on a daily basis interacting with mobile phones and tablets, they have been moving away from Microsoft-powered products.

The Surface tablets could change that equation by providing what looks to be a solid alternative to the iPad and its Android cousins.

While Microsoft wasn't specific about what a Surface tablet will cost, they hinted that it would be "competitive" with other tablets of similar capabilities, which seems to infer that Redmond is taking aim at Apple, as opposed to trying to hit the $200 price point of a Kindle Fire.

But while Microsoft did its best to mimic an Apple "event" with Monday's secretive Surface announcement, it fell short in one critical area — timing.

When Apple raised the curtain on its new line of Mac computers last week, customers were pulling out their credit cards that same day; the products were already available.

When will you be able to buy a Surface? How much will it cost? We don't yet know for sure.

But by the time that happens, the glow of Microsoft's announcement will have worn off... and it's possible that Google will be selling its rumored new tablet, which is expected to target the lower end of the market, and may tempt people who've been waiting to buy.

It is hard to imagine that Surface, as a first generation hardware product from a company best known for its software, can hit a digital home run in Apple's ballpark.

Microsoft, however, has very deep pockets. If it can maintain its commitment to this category through what's likely to be a challenging year or two, you and I as consumers will surely benefit from the innovation and the competition.