Microsoft's Surface Tablet: How Do Partners Respond?

After five days of teasing and hype, Microsoft unveiled the Surface, the first tablet computer it will manufacture on its own to match the Apple iPad, but it may be at the risk of alienating its hardware partners.

The rumormongers were proven right June 18 when Microsoft unveiled a coming tablet computer, the Microsoft Surface, for which it will design the hardware and software in an integrated fashion€”a strategy it believes will allow it to take on the Apple iPad.

"Any interaction between human and machine can be made better when all aspects are considered together," said Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, at a launch event in Los Angeles, copying a page from the book of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who passed away last year. For years, Jobs espoused the gospel of the co-development of hardware and software.

A few minutes after the event ended, a Microsoft Website showing images, a video and other details of the Surface went live.

Two Versions of the Surface for Starters

The Surface will come in two models, one for each of the two variations of the new Windows operating system coming this fall. The Windows 8 Surface will run an Intel Ivy Bridge class x86 processor while the Windows RT model will run an ARM-based processor from Nvidia.

Because the Windows 8 tablet will run a hotter processor, it will be vented because it will still need fans to cool the device as PC laptops do today. Also as an homage to the PC, the Surface will include a USB port, which Jobs banished from the design of the first iPad, which was unveiled in 2010.

The Surface also includes a 5mm thick cover for the screen, which snaps into place with magnets, but on the flip side reveals a soft-touch full-size keyboard. From the back side of the case, a kickstand slides out so the Surface can be propped up on its side to view movies or other content on its 16:9 aspect ratio screen.

So, How Do Partners Respond?

"I think it looks fantastic," said Tom Mainelli, research director for mobile connected devices at IDC, who like many people not invited to the Los Angeles event, had to watch live blogging of the action online from the privileged few journalists at the venue.

"I have two questions," Mainelli continued, "How much, and how do their partners respond?"

Microsoft has long designed software for desktop, laptop and server computers, but left it up to hardware manufacturers to design and build the hardware. With this strategy, Microsoft is now competing against partners such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) and numerous others.

But the way Mainelli sees it, Microsoft is encouraging those companies to step up.

"[Microsoft] feels very challenged by what Apple has been able to do, particularly with the iPad. And they are coming to this party really late," he said.

With three iterations of the iPad already on the market, and possibly another one yet this year, Microsoft knows it only has one opportunity to introduce something impressive to challenge the iPad, he said.

"They made a decision that will potentially alienate some of their partners to come out with a device that they think is competitive," Mainelli said. But in a sense, it's telling manufacturing partners, "Let's see you do it better," he said.

What a Key Microsoft Partner, and Now Competitor, Said

Lenovo shared a statement with eWEEK prior to the announcement in anticipation of what Microsoft would say.

"Microsoft has been and will continue to be one of Lenovo's most valued partners. €¦ We have enjoyed increasing success, and our goal is to ensure that our tablet business keeps growing," said Ray Gorman, executive director of external communications for Lenovo, in a statement.

"While we always welcome competition in our industry, we believe that the knowledge we're gaining in this business, the innovation we're delivering to our customers, and the partnerships we've been strengthening along the way, keeps Lenovo in a very strong position to compete and win in the tablet market, against all comers."

Lenovo makes tablet computers running both Google Android and the coming Windows 8 OS.

Dell did not respond to requests for comment. HP, which has had its own issues with developing tablet PCs, told eWEEK it would have no comment.