Microsoft Surface: to iPad or not to iPad, that is the Question

To a surprising amount of excitement, Microsoft announced the a pair of new tablets this week. Web reactions to the new Surface — as you’d expect — were split down party lines: “It’s not an iPad! It’s stupid!” and “It’s not an iPad! It’s the second coming!”

Reality, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. It’s possible the Surface is a worthy iPad competitor something that, so far, we have not seen.

It all comes down to one, seemingly simple, thing...

CONTENT! Why am I the only person talking about this? If I don’t have access to an iTunes/Amazon-size library of TV shows and movies, the Surface is an also-ran, just like every other crap tablet available on the market.

Let me explain.

Tablet-as-entertainment

This is Sound+Vision I do not care what “work” oriented tasks a tablet can do. Do. Not. Care. If you do, good on ya, but that’s not my beat. That the Surface has a USB input and SD card slot (*grumble* microSD) is cool, but not a huge leap for the entertainment aspect.

In my mind the single most important aspect of a tablet is what I can download to it. Netflix streaming doesn’t do you any good 35,000 feet above the Atlantic. The fact is, iTunes and Amazon have vastly more content available than any of the other services (including Sony and Samsung). So to me, the iPad and Kindle Fire are the only tablets that matter.

The Surface Wrinkle

At the announcement event, there was no discussion of content (or pricing, or availability — what a surprise). There are two potentialities, one good, and one bad. Microsoft doesn’t have the best track record of going with the option that’s easiest for consumers, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, as we have no proof either way.

Option #1: The Surface functions like any other computer. By this, I mean I can download iTunes and play whatever content I want. The basic Surface likely won’t be able to do this, as it’s running Windows RT. RT only runs apps available through the Windows Store, and what are the odds that Apple and Microsoft will cooperate in that happening?

The Pro version will run a full version of Windows 8. Now this is interesting. Unless there’s some active lock against it, you should be able to use the Surface Pro as a complete laptop replacement. So you have access to all the content the iPad does, with none of the annoying Apple limitations on I/O, accessories, et al.

Option #2: There are locks against downloading from iTunes for either technological (because of RT) or business reasons (forcing you to download only from Microsoft, like the Xbox/Zune Marketplace). This — and to be honest, I feel this is the more likely option — will cripple the Surface. I’ve told you what my needs are in a tablet. On the current Surface website, there’s a mention of “Discover new music, movies, and games in the Windows Store.” This certainly points the finger slightly towards Option #2.

I’ll ask the question again, but with a different twist: If you’re spending all this money on a tablet, why wouldn’t you get one that has access to all available content? They all do work stuff, so why limit yourself? Further, if you’re looking at the Surface to replace a “computer,” why (presuming Option #2) get one that locks you out of getting content. An ultrabook is practically the same size, but doesn’t limit what you can do with it.

It’s that latter part that tantilizes the most: a tablet without Apple’s draconian limitations. I’m a PC guy, always have been, always will be. The idea of a tablet that’s as open as Windows seems awesome to me. Here’s hoping Microsoft doesn’t screw it up.

Bottom Line

The Surface is undoubtedly a cool tablet. The cover-as-keyboard design is rather brilliant, and the USB, HDMI, and SD card slots make Apple look like dicks. If — and this is a big “if” — it functions like a “normal” computer, letting me install iTunes and download whatever music or movies I want, then it’s a homerun and will be an epic product. I will replace my aging laptop immediately, enthusiastically, and marvel at the tablet-oriented future.

If, however, it doesn’t do that, then it’s just another hobbled, boring tablet, albeit one with a cool design. Snore.

We shall see.

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