Microsoft Corp put its Surface tablet center stage at its Windows 8 launch event, hoping the sleek new device will spark a fightback against Apple Inc and Google Inc in the exploding mobile computing market.
With interest in traditional computers waning, the world’s largest software company is attempting to reinvent the Windows PC in a new format and directly challenge Apple’s all-conquering iPad.
“One person called it historic, unique,” said Steven Sinofsky, head of Microsoft’s Windows unit and the driving force behind Windows 8, who opened the launch event in New York in front of about 1,000 media and PC industry partners.
“It’s twice the amount of storage as a competing tablet for the same price,” Sinofsky said, comparing the entry-level 32GB Surface with the cheapest 16GB model of Apple’s latest full-sized iPad, which both cost US$499.
Sinofsky and his team showed off a range of devices running Windows 8 from PC makers such as Lenovo Group Ltd (聯想) and Acer Inc (宏碁), but devoted most of their energy to the second half of the presentation and the Surface tablet, the first computer Microsoft has made itself.
Panos Panay, head of the Surface project, demonstrated the tablet’s features, beaming video and music to other screens, showing off the ultra-thin cover that doubles as a keyboard, and hooking up a camera to the device’s USB port. He even dropped the device on the floor to demonstrate its durability.
Microsoft stressed that the Surface, featuring a pre-installed version of Office, is not just for entertainment but also for work. The device has generated a lot of curiosity, but so far has not garnered rave reviews and users seem unconvinced.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook wasted no time shooting back at Microsoft’s challenge.
“I haven’t personally played with the Surface yet, but what we’re reading about it is that it’s a fairly compromised, confusing product,” Cook said on Apple’s quarterly earnings conference call with analysts. “I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don’t think it would do all of those things very well.”
Windows 7 was introduced three years ago, but Windows 8 represents the biggest change in Microsoft’s user interface since Windows 95 came out 17 years ago.
“We’ve reimagined Windows, and we’ve reimagined the whole PC industry,” Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told Reuters Television.
The radical redesign, which dispenses with the Start button and features square tiles for apps, may surprise some users.
Sinofsky sought to quell fears by emphasizing that the new system was built on the base of Windows 7, Microsoft’s best-selling software that recently passed 670 million license sales.
Microsoft is offering several versions of the new system. The basic Windows 8, the full Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Enterprise for large organizations will all run on traditional PCs, laptops and new tablets using Intel Corp chips. Windows RT is a new version of Windows that will be pre-installed on its Surface tablet and other devices using low-power chips designed by ARM Holdings PLC.
Through the end of January, users running Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 can download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for US$40.