Steve Ballmer was so sure that yesterday's "secret" Microsoft announcement was going to fly, he dragged a large number of journalists out to LA purely on the promise of something important.
There were no surprises whatsoever when it turned out to be a tablet. Admittedly, it was a polished and exciting-looking tablet. But seconds after the reveal, immediate public reaction to its basic shape and functionality was one of scorn and derision. Sitting at home or in offices tweeting on their iPads, many lambasted Microsoft for unveiling a "copycat" or "wannabe" device. Those people missed Microsoft's real point, because what's really going on with Surface is that the company is topping off a tower it's been quietly building for several years.
Apple hardly owns the concept of tablet computing, even if it's appeared to have made the market its sole playground in the past few years. Microsoft itself coined the term "Tablet PC" way back in 2001, laying out the guidelines for a series of sidelined, failed or otherwise forgotten machines. From Bill Gates himself unveiling the first prototype at the Comdex conference in 2000, to the Windows For Pen Computing OS sideline, to 2006's Origimai-based Samsung Q1m to 2010's HP Slate 500, which neatly showcased Windows 7 functionality on tablets but offered little else, Microsoft seems only ever to have treated the tablet as a sideshow attraction, or a convenient platform to sell its software to others, and let them deal with the fallout.
But all this time, as Apple's dominance has grown, it seems Microsoft has been quietly filling the multidevice functionality gap that Apple has blatantly, even aggressivley, ignored in favour of boxed-off, app-based tech.
And now, it feels that after waiting in the wings, Microsoft is ready to unleash something of its own that has a chance at proving disruptively different to Apple's tried and tested iPad formula. People just have to get over that peculiar Apple brainwashing process that makes them think when someone sticks an "i" in front of something, it immediately becomes occupied territory, and must be settled for without argument.
It seems undeniable that, should Ballmer and friends bring everything together, this could be the machine that finally, unlike the poor old netbook, bridges the gaps between desktops, notebooks and tablets. As an open system, Android is a great idea and an ideological dream for the IT industry, but hardly a workable notion when trying to interface across devices in a muscular and reliable way. In the spirit of its invention, Linux's open-source nature means it'll be forever a concept built and rebuilt for highly specific purposes, communicating erratically across formats, and requiring more patience than many have time or grace to offer.
That's left everybody with iOS, which requires a third party investment on the part of the user just to find a spellchecker, or docking with a desktop machine simply to add entries to a calendar.
The Metro interface so far has few real fans, but if Microsoft can convince everybody otherwise, it'll add to a system that, in its full Windows 8, USB 3.0-equipped flavour, has more than the required grunt at the top end to be able to bask fully in the largely unparalleled wonderland of Microsoft's ever-expanding software ecosystem. Held together by Office 365, Microsoft Network on the internet, and even the company's vastly accelerating technological achievements that are being slowly ported over from its Xbox 360 video-gaming division, these are exciting times for a company that's finally starting to get its software head together.
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