Microsoft Surface: Consumer tech gets a third ecosystem

June 20, 2012

It’s easy to forget that Microsoft has almost always been a bit of a hardware company.

In fact, their mechanical mice in the 1980s and ‘90s were some of the best. I used a Microsoft Natural keyboard for a while as well. And the last two generations of Xbox have been excellent platforms. While they each had technical difficulties, an excellent (Halo) assortment of games (Halo) has solidified their position among (Halo) gamers.

So, when Microsoft announced their Surface tablet Monday, I doubt anyone was particularly surprised. In 2007, long before the iPad, Microsoft’s research division released a product also called Surface. But that was a piece of a furniture — a roughly 200-pound tabletop display that impressively demonstrated multi-touch, and many of the user interface constructs that Apple later made commonplace. That older generation of Surface has since been renamed PixelSense.

The new Surface tablet is slightly larger than an iPad, and, curiously enough, includes a keyboard and kickstand. It’s clear that there will be two versions — one that runs on Arm, and another on Intel. And, while I doubt you’d be playing games (Halo), on either platform, you’ll easily be able to do your usual couch surfing.

But, for Microsoft, this is clearly an attempt to become a true, third ecosystem. The Surface is expected to integrate seamlessly into the Microsoft product ecosystem, and I’ll bet the integration with Windows Phones will be quite acceptable.

This means new competition for Apple, which has a cluster of products that increasingly connect to each other. Future versions of iOS and OS X will have you sharing your screen from one device to another, as well as controlling one from another. Then there’s the potential for apps to increasingly communicate with each other as well. You can already control your AppleTV from your iPad. But I expect that communication will become bi-directional as your big screen increasingly informs your small screen.

And then there’s Google. A Google user is already connected to a tight ecosystem, albeit one that grew out of the cloud instead of from the iPod. The first time you login to your Android Phone, you are magically connected to your Googley goodness. Your contacts and e-mail just work. The first time you install Chrome on a second laptop, you realize all your plugins just migrated. And, while GoogleTV hasn’t set the world on fire yet, they clearly have a vision to bridge all of your screens ... right back to the Glass on your face.

Even if Microsoft is able to produce a quality product, they still don’t have a sure thing on their hands. Without Apple’s network of stores and a fan-boy hype machine, it is impossible to say if Surface is destined to be as important to users as the Microsoft Mouse was to early PC users, the Xbox to (Halo) gamers, or even the ill-fated Zune to its thousands of hardcore fans. But I’m happy to see another ecosystem no matter who makes it -- more choices are better for everyone as long as they are reasonably compatible.

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