Microsoft's venture into selling company-designed tablets is fraught with risk, but tops on one analyst's list is the firm setting itself up as its own rival.
"Microsoft will be its own worst enemy in this market," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research, in a Monday blog posted after the Redmond, Wash. developer unveiled its new Surface, a line of 10.6-in. tablets.
"The worst thing that could happen to Microsoft's Windows RT tablets is Windows 8 on x86," argued Epps, referring to the two distinct models in the Surface line-up.
On Monday afternoon, Microsoft executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, chief of the Windows division, introduced the not-yet-available Surface tablet, which will be sold in two flavors.
One, tagged the Windows RT Surface, runs Windows RT, the new edition that works only on devices powered by ARM-licensed processors. ARM CPUs drive virtually every mobile device, from smartphones to tablets, including Apple's iconic iPad.
Windows RT, a major departure for Microsoft in more ways than one, is the company's attempt to break into the lucrative consumer-oriented media tablet market.
But Microsoft will also sell the Windows 8 Pro Surface, a tablet that, while identical at first glance to its Windows RT sibling, runs the more traditional Windows 8 on hardware powered by Intel processors.
Because that second Surface relies on an Intel chip -- a quad-core i5 from the just-released "Ivy Bridge" architecture, the same used in Windows laptops and as of last week, the one packed into Apple's MacBook Air and the least-expensive MacBook Pro -- will run all legacy Windows applications as well as the newer Metro apps that Microsoft and others are developing. It will also be heavier -- by half a pound -- and slightly thicker than the Windows RT tablet, although by other external appearances it will be identical.
And that's the problem Rotman Epps foresees.
"Microsoft and its partners need to articulate a compelling strategy for how they will manage consumer expectations in the channel," she wrote. "Consumers aren't used to thinking about chipsets."
Possible confusion could dampen sales, or worse. "Selling x86-based tablets in the same retail channels as Windows RT tablets will confuse consumers and sow discontent if consumers buy [the Windows 8 Pro Surface] and think they're getting something like the iPad," said Epps.
As Rotman Epps noted, Microsoft will use the same outlets, at least initially, to sell both Surface tablets: Its small chain of U.S. retail stores and through its online store in a limited number of countries.
Similar confusion has dogged Microsoft in the past, whether when it used a bare-bones version of Windows, called "Starter," to equip netbooks, or when it shipped six different versions of both Vista and Windows 7.
When Microsoft launched Windows 7 Starter in late 2009 for the last wave of netbooks, for example, a survey showed that nearly two-thirds of those polled did not know that Starter -- which was licensed only to makers of inexpensive, small-sized laptops, tagged as "netbooks" -- lacked some features that were standard in the older Windows XP.
Those users were likely to get hot under the collar when they discovered the missing features, said bloggers and analysts.
Rotman Epps' worry is the opposite, that buyers will mix the two Surface tablets, pick the more expensive Windows 8 Pro model and be unhappy when they realize they paid more for features, such as the ability to run older Windows software, that they didn't want or don't need on a tablet.
Other analysts also pointed out problems with Windows 8 tablets, although they didn't voice Rotman Epps' concern about confusion.
"The [Windows 8 Pro] Surface is still a PC, which means it has all the good things about that, like the ability to run a wide range of software, but it also has the bad things," said Tom Mainelli of IDC. Among the latter: The habit of a Windows machines' performance to degrade over time as users install some programs, uninstall others, then repeat the cycle.
Rotman Epps decried the multi-OS choice facing Surface buyers, and compared it to the lack of options offered by Apple. "Choice is a key tenet of Windows, but too much choice is overwhelming for consumers. Apple gets this, and limits iPad options to connectivity, storage, and black ... or white," she wrote.
Actually, the iPad comes in many more configurations: Three choices of storage size, two of connectivity -- Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi plus cellular -- and two types of the latter to account for the world's two dominant cellular data network standards. That's nine different options, or 18 if black-versus-white is tossed into the mix.
Microsoft will offer just four Surface configurations: Two of the Windows RT model (16GB or 32GB of storage) and two for the Windows 8 Pro tablet (64GB or 128GB).
But for all the iPad's permutations, one thing is constant: They all run the same operating system, iOS.
Other experts were also surprised that Microsoft announced both Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets, but for different reasons.
"I'm a little surprised that they decided to make both ARM and Intel versions," admitted Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft. "ARM I could see because [Windows RT] is the new thing, and Microsoft may not have gotten many partners to commit to that, but the Intel [Surface] could really cut into their partners' sales."
Microsoft has not spelled out the prices for the Surface tablets, other than to say that they will be comparable to other mobile devices that run Windows RT or Windows 8.
Nor has it set an exact date of availability. The Windows RT Surface will go on sale around the time that Windows RT and Windows 8 launch -- that's expected in the fall -- while the x86 device running Windows 8 Pro will debut three months later.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected].
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