I first met Steven Bathiche when I took a trip to Microsoft’s campus to check out what the company had been doing in research and development. Microsoft PR had sworn that I would be blown away by the “cool things” the company was doing, and I wanted to see for myself.

Bathiche’s lab was in a dark corner of one of the many large buildings within the company’s Seattle sprawl. The second I walked in, it was clear the work inside was safely in the realm of mad science. Bathiche showed me a project he has been working on for some time that would allow people to create a virtual window from one room to another, utilizing a variety of display, motion sensing and 3D technologies. He dubbed it the “magic wall.”

It was nuts. It was ambitious. It was awesome.

The whole time, all I could think was: Where has Microsoft been hiding guys like this?

After Monday’s announcement of the Surface tablet and its accessories, it seems the company is ready to bring some of its wild thinkers out of hiding.

In case you’ve been living under a rock or on an Internet-free vacation, you should know Microsoft just decided to enter the tablet game in a big way by introducing its own hardware to the market, designed to run Windows 8. The company also showed off some innovative accessories, such as magnetic covers that double as keyboards.

Those keyboards — one a pressure sensitive, 3mm touch surface, the other a traditional, tactile version — were designed by Bathiche and his team.

In fact, the entire tablet was designed in-house by Microsoft’s teams, and if you believe what was said in the presentation Monday, design and functionality in hardware have suddenly become a big deal in Redmond.

That’s a big shift — and an important one. The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to break with its history — a history of hardware partnerships that relied on companies such as Dell, HP or Acer to actually bring its products to market.

That might burn partners in the short term, but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story.

I know what you’re going to say: Microsoft is just ripping off Apple. The presentation, the hardware and software integration, even the way executives talked about the product on stage. Yes, that’s true — they learned something from Apple. So did Google — that’s why the Galaxy Nexus exists, and it’s why the company will probably announce a Nexus tablet this month.

Microsoft might be stealing a page from Apple’s playbook, but it’s a good page to steal. It also happens to give a narrative to a product that has thus far been something of a mystery: Windows 8.

Since the introduction of the Metro UI and Microsoft’s talk about a “no compromises” operating system, there has been plenty of speculation on exactly what kind of product a Windows 8 PC would be. The combination touch interface and traditional desktop have continuously felt like a jarring mashup of ideas. Despite allusions to hybrid products that function as both tablet and PC, it’s never been clear what Microsoft intended to do with Windows 8.

But the Surface seems to solidify the message of Windows 8, and it puts the evolving OS into a package that makes sense. An attractive package, at that.

A gray area exists for me with the iPad. I love using it to read, browse the Web, share content and occasionally create content. But there is a moment when I have to put the iPad down and grab my laptop. I travel with both. I keep both nearby at home. And I think this is true for many people (certainly for many I know in the tech media).

After Microsoft’s announcement, I can envision a situation where I’m not traveling with two devices, or sitting on my couch with two devices, or running to grab my laptop from my office upstairs. The Surface makes sense, and it drives home Microsoft’s previously vague intentions with Windows 8.

The company doesn’t suddenly have a hit on its hands. This isn’t a strong tree — it’s more like a seedling that will need a ton of water and direct sunlight.

I’ve been stewing on it, and I think there are three things that have to happen for the Surface to really be a viable alternative to the iPad (or a standard laptop, for that matter).

The first is that Microsoft needs to evangelize this product to developers and persuade them that there’s an opportunity to make money on its platform. There is simply no way to get new users to buy without a stacked app catalogue, and Microsoft has a huge uphill battle to fight against two entrenched players.

Second, the price has to be right. If the lower-end Surface costs more than $500, it will be a really difficult sell for Microsoft. Price really does matter in a world where an iPad 2 is $399 and the Kindle Fire just half that.

Finally, Microsoft needs to deliver on its hardware promises. It’s easy to say you made an awesome product, but it’s a lot harder to actually make that product. Every company says they make great stuff, but few actually do.

And in case you’re keeping count, Microsoft has never made a tablet before. With guys such as Bathiche leading the charge, I believe the company is capable of great things, but it has to execute.

Remember, this is the company that produced the failed Kin line of phones and killed off another attempt at a tablet, the promising Courier project. Hardware is not simple for any company, and making the Surface truly great will not be a cakewalk.

One thing seems certain. With the Surface, Microsoft just started writing its next chapter. And for the first time in a while, I’m excited to see where the story goes.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.