Microsoft's Surface kicks off tablet war with Apple's iPad

Ultra thin covers-cum-keyboards that works and plays: CEO Ballmer

Microsoft on Monday unveiled its first tablet computer, the Surface, as the technology titan steps in with its own hardware to take on Apple's market-ruling iPads.

Chief executive Steve Ballmer described the iPad challenger -- complete with ultra thin covers-cum-keyboards in a range of colors -- as a tablet that "works and plays" as he presented it at a press event in Los Angeles.

Surface is also the name of table and poster-sized touch screen computers that Microsoft has pitched to the business market for use in restaurants, shops, bars and other venues.

There were spontaneous bursts of applause and whoops from tech journalists and bloggers -- gathered in a Hollywood design studio -- as key features of the new tablet -- including the keyboard-cum-case, and the built-in stand.

There was also one nerve-jangling moment for Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows and Windows Live Division, when the first Surface model he was demonstrating failed to respond to a touch command.

He excused himself and raced back a few steps to reach for a replacement, which to his barely-concealed relief worked properly.

A version of Surface running on Windows RT software tailored for ARM mobile device chips measured 9.3 millimeters thick and weighed 676 grams.

It boasted a 10.6-inch (26.9 centimeter) high-definition screen and will be available with 32 or 64 gigabytes of memory, according to Microsoft.

A tablet model powered by Windows 8 Pro software measured 13.5 millimeters thick, weighs 903 grams and will be available with 64 or 128 gigabytes of memory.

"It's a whole new community of computing devices from Microsoft," Ballmer said. "It embodies the notion of hardware and software really pushing each other."

Surface featured a flip-out rear "kickstand" to prop it up like a picture frame and a cover that, when opened, acts as a keypad so tablets could be switched into "desktop" mode for work tasks.

Microsoft did not specify when the tablet would be available but it is likely to be timed with the release of Windows 8 software later this year.

"This product marks a crucial pivot in Microsoft's product strategy," said Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

"It puts the focus on the consumer rather than the enterprise," she continued in a blog post. "And it lets Microsoft compete with vertically-integrated Apple on more even ground."

Microsoft could be "its own worst enemy" in the tablet market if it overwhelms people with gadget options and specs such as chipsets instead of following Apple's lead and keeping choices simple, the analyst warned.

"Consumers aren't used to thinking about chipsets," Rotman Epps said.

"Choice is a key tenet of Windows, but too much choice is overwhelming for consumers," she continued. "Apple gets this, and limits iPad options to connectivity, storage, and black or white."

Microsoft, which built its fortune by specializing in software and leaving the job of making computers or other devices to partners, has had mixed results from its hardware ventures.

The Redmond, Washington-based technology colossus has stamped its brand on personal computer keyboards, headsets, speakers, webcams and mouse controllers.

Microsoft has occasionally weighed in with more significant hardware when it appeared that rivals were running away with the market.

The company's most successful effort in devices has been its Xbox gaming console, in contrast to failed its music player known as Zune.

The Xbox videogame console by Microsoft made its debut in November of 2001 to take on Sony PlayStation systems in a battle for people's living rooms.

The current generation Xbox 360 console dominates the market. Microsoft has been building on the array of films, games, music and other digital content available in an Xbox Live online service to make the consoles home entertainment hubs.

Microsoft this month unveiled a SmartGlass application that developers can use to synch iPads or other tablet computers to Xbox 360 consoles.

Zune handheld digital media players were released in late 2006 in a Microsoft challenge to Apple's culture-changing iPod devices.

Microsoft discontinued Zune hardware last year. But it continues to operate its Zune service offering online music, films and other entertainment content, weaving it into the offerings available on Internet-linked Xbox 360 videogame consoles.

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