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Why Microsoft left questions unanswered at the Surface unveiling, and why it made sense

Microsoft Surface TabletYesterday at a super-secret event in Los Angeles, Microsoft unveiled its biggest hope for Windows 8 – the Microsoft Surface line of tablets. You can read all about the unveiling at any tech-related site, including Josh’s write-up right here on The Digital Media Zone.

The line currently (and possibly always will) consists of two different models: Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro. The RT model will go head-to-head with the iPad, the Pro model, essentially, goes up against ultrabooks and laptops. Both feature 10.6-inch, 16:9 screens, are slightly heavier and thicker than the current iPad (the Pro model more so), feature an integrated kickstand, and come in 32 and 64 GB (RT) or 64 and 128 GB (Pro) versions.

They will also both work with a pair of ingenious keyboards that might have actually stolen the show from the main hardware, the Type and Touch Keyboard Covers. Doubling as both an ultrathin cover (3mm or 5 mm) for the tablet as well as a full keyboard with touchpad, this was something no one saw coming and is possibly one of the more brilliant innovations in tablet computing. Full specs here.

Since the announcement, Microsoft has gotten its fair share of (deserved) praise for delivering on the promise of a major announcement, and for the quality of the hardware unveiled. However, there’s been near-universal discontent thrown at Microsoft for leaving many questions open in the wake of the announcement.

This isn’t the first tech introduction that was light on details, and I think in many cases Microsoft had good reason to deliver the news the way it did. Here are some of the questions left open, my take on why they remain unanswered, and a guess at what the answer might be.

Screen Resolution – We know that the Pro version claims Full HD, which means at least 1920×1080, so that answers that. As for the RT version, it was shown last night using Windows 8’s multitasking “Snap” feature, which requires at least 1366×768, which means at least 720p. I’m sure people will want to argue Retina Display and pixel counts, but we can be sure that each device measures up to modern tablet resolutions.

Battery Life – The specs tell us the RT uses a 31.5 W-h battery and the Pro a 42 W-h battery. Microsoft didn’t detail battery life in hours last night, and that could be for several reasons. Very likely they are still working on a final battery spec and tidying up last-minute details that could affect battery life. Why quote battery life that may under or over-promise? We do know the new iPad uses a 42.5 W-h battery, so we can surmise that the Pro model certainly won’t extend past what the new iPad does. It’s possible, due to the larger power draw of the full Intel processor, it will fall short. We also know the RT version uses the more battery-efficient ARM processors, hence the smaller battery. My guess, both tablets will be nearly equal in battery life, but not quite reach iPad levels.

Processors and RAM – We’re 99.9% sure the RT version will be using an nVidia Tegra processor. What’s inside the Pro model is anyone’s guess. RAM was also left undetailed for both versions. Both RAM and processor specifications tie directly into battery life, so it’s no surprise we didn’t learn much about either of these factors. And though Microsoft will no doubt still rely on OEMs to help steer the success of Windows 8, they weren’t about to give out a playbook for someone to build a competing tablet in the 4-5 months before the release of the RT model (the Pro model will be out about three months after RT). Microsoft stood to gain nothing, other than satisfying the tech press’ curiosity, by giving full tech specs, but it stood to lose a lot by detailing every minute detail. In short, keeping specs tight to the vest was a shrewd business move. It’s also possible, as I mentioned above, the final decisions on processors are still not done (though they will have to get made very quickly to hit the release date). I won’t pretend to be a processor expert here but I’ll bet that the Surface tablets will be powered at or above what ASUS, Acer and friends revealed at Computex.

Microsoft Surface TabletRelease date – Microsoft hasn’t given a release date for Windows 8, so why people expected to know the exact date of release for the tablets is beyond me. People forget that Windows 8 hasn’t even RTM’d yet, so expecting a release date was foolish. That the Pro model would come out three months post-Windows 8 was a surprise, and might point to some back office wrangling with OEMs to allow them to get their wares out before the Surface Pro model hits stores. No need to guess here, RT comes out with Windows 8 general availability, Pro about three months later.

4G/3G – Microsoft didn’t even HINT at connectivity other than Wi-Fi yesterday. Most likely, they’re still working with carriers to hammer out data plans and policies. Expect that Windows Phone BFF AT&T is the initial launch partner, but I wouldn’t be surprised if data connectivity didn’t hit right at the RT’s launch in the fall (which would be disappointing but not fatal).

Pricing – Apple is famous for its pressers that end with “and it’s all available today on the Apple store.” This has led to the expectation that any tech unveiling should come complete with pricing. But, as stated above, final details are likely still in flux, and we’re months away from launch. How, then, would Microsoft have final pricing ready this far in advance? And even if they did, why would they let it slip? Apple will introduce a new iPhone in the fall, have they told us how much it will cost? No, of course not. Microsoft said it would be competitive with tablets for RT, and ultrabooks with Pro. That leaves a big window, but in the end the RT version will be within $50-100 of comparable iPad versions, if not the same price, and the Pro will settle in at just above the mid-level of Windows 8 ultrabooks and other Intel tablets running Windows 8 Pro. Why? Because they have to. Microsoft would be INSANE to go this far and ruin it all on pricing. They simply can’t come to market with a 32GB RT device that costs $200 more than a 32GB iPad. The OS doesn’t yet have the cache to charge a premium, and consumers wouldn’t go for it.

Apps – Other than Netflix, no apps were shown last night, nor was there any discussion about the Windows Store. This event was focused squarely on hardware, as it should have been. Many posts today have fallen back on the “there’s no apps” line for the Windows tablets as a reason they will fail. A quick reminder to those people: The Windows Store isn’t officially open yet. The software is in beta still, and only people with an explicit invite from Microsoft can get apps into the store in the release preview. It’s like complaining that the new local grocery store doesn’t carry your favorite brands the day the shelves are installed five months before it opens. Will it be as mature as Apple’s? No. But for goodness sake, to take points away for something like this is pretty silly and shortsighted.

What about OEMS? – There’s a lot of speculation that Microsoft OEMs like Dell, HP and the like have to be fuming at this announcement. I don’t buy it. Were they surprised? Possibly. Is there feverish hand-wringing over this? I don’t believe so.

First, Microsoft hasn’t entered the laptop or desktop market, a space that OEMs have sold MILLIONS of PCs in over the past several years. Despite Microsoft touting the enterprise features of Windows 8, corporations around the world are still going to buy desktops and laptops for their employees, and Microsoft won’t be selling that hardware to them. Does this change the tablet landscape for Windows 8? Without a doubt. Microsoft instantly becomes the lead maker of Windows 8 tablets, but do their OEM partners really care that much? Many of them have struggled mightily with Android tablets as Mashable pointed out earlier today, and they’re likely worried about the same thing with Windows 8. Surface will no doubt take sales away from OEMs, but at the same time, Microsoft’s hardware may lead to new sales they might have never gotten. Assuming Surface is priced as a mid-level to high-end choice in the Windows tablet arena, OEMs still have lots of sales to capture in the low-end market. And seeing Microsoft’s offering, along with the extra marketing that will come with it, could lead to new tablet sales that ASUS and other partners would never have gotten. If OEMs decide to cry and take their ball and go home, I think they’ll be missing a big opportunity.

For its part, Microsoft isn’t biting back at some of the unfair criticism lobbed at Surface. This is the world we live in now, and Microsoft knows it pulled off a major coup yesterday, planning an event with Apple-like secrecy and doing it with nary a leak. It clearly was prepared to take some heat, and within a few days that heat will die down and people will be left with the excitement of the device’s full unveiling in the fall.

With Windows Phone, Microsoft hit the home run on the OS, but thus far has failed on hardware and marketing. They have a chance to avoid the same fate with Windows 8, and they took a HUGE step in the right direction last night.

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