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On the Surface, Microsoft takes on the iPad

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Microsoft last night announced its competitor to the Apple iPad ‚ the Microsoft Surface. Specifications are still vague, but SEAN BACHER scratches beneath the surface‚Ķ

At an event in Los Angeles last night, Microsoft finally unveiled its answer to the Apple iPad. Details are still vague, but the Microsoft Surface has finally moved from rumour to reality.

The tablet uses a 10.6‚ screen ‚ bigger than almost all existing tablets. As expected, it runs on Microsoft Windows 8. But two other things set it apart from other tablets: it is encased in a magnesium cover and has a built-in kickstand. The cover isn’t just to protect it, but also acts as a ‚smart cover‚ , and then some. When opened, it reveals a full QWERTY keyboard. This means it is not flexible, like many of the iPad keyboards, but Microsoft has said that it wants to give the Surface a ‚book-like‚ feel.

Besides being able to operate the device via either the keyboard or touchscreen, the Surface also offers pen input, and it features front and rear cameras for video conferencing and video or image creation.

According to Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, two versions of the Surface will initially be launched, one running Windows 8 Pro and the second using a low-power tablet-oriented version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Microsoft is aiming the former at the high-end business market and the latter at consumers. RT is also geared towards manufacturers currently producing Android tablets.

According to reports, the consumer version will be available with 32 or 64 GB of memory and the more powerful Pro will be configured with 64 or 128 GB. The Surface will also be available using Intel CPUs or ARM processors.

Many critical specifications, like price, screen resolution, battery life or release date were not mentioned last night, but Microsoft said it would make them available closer to the time of launch. At the latest, it is likely to launch with the release version of Windows 8 on 15 October.

Aside from the wildly successful Kinect, Microsoft has never been able to establish itself as a hardware developer. Can the Surface change this? Will it compete with the iPad? That may well depend on how well it is integrated into both the Windows and Office environments. Microsoft still owns the desktop, and the Surface will reveal how well it can claim a slice of the tablet market.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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