@ocugwu takes the road less queried.

On Monday, Microsoft marshaled the spotlight with the promise of a breakthrough. The software company was set to introduce some hot new hardware; and not just any hardware, but a long-awaited competitor to Apple's iPad—the unsinkable juggernaut that has, over the past two years, left essentially every other technology company prostrate in ignoble defeat. There's no doubt that what Microsoft delivered on Monday, a Windows 8 tablet called Surface, is going to have a very difficult time matching up with the iPad in either sales or market share, at least at first. When it's released at an unannounced date this fall, it will most likely enjoy only a fraction of that tablet's blockbuster success. On this much, most people can agree. And yet Microsoft dealt a major blow against Apple two nights ago in L.A., one whose ramifications will soon be felt throughout the entire computing industry. Because even though this new tablet faces an uphill battle and is, in any case, still partly shrouded in mystery, one thing is already becoming clear: five years from now, the computer that you take with you always; the one that you use both at home and on a long flight; the one that finally managed to replace your laptop, will owe more to Microsoft's Surface than to today's iPad. And it will have been brought to you by the same guys who made the Zune.

If you think about it, for the past 30 years or so, it's been surprisingly difficult to imagine a future without the laptop. The laptop has, for most people, persisted as the ideal computing experience, surviving serious challenges from both the smartphone and, up until this point, the tablet. Where most other personal technologies flourish for a while before being stricken from the earth (The Walkman, PDAs, Furby), the laptop and its familiar form factor have become something of a fixture, in the same way that toothbrushes and belt buckles are fixtures.

Since the iPad's introduction in 2010, many have pointed to it, and will likely continue to point to it, as computing's slim, elegant, Retina-refined future. But despite its popularity, the iPad hasn't actually done much to kill off demand for PCs—specifically, laptops. While desktop computer ownership among American adults is declining, laptop ownership has increased steadily since 2010, currently sitting at about 57 percent compared to 19 percent for tablets, according to Pew. Another poll found that one in three adults plan to purchase a new laptop this year, whereas only half as many said they planned to buy a tablet.

Part of this is because laptops are getting suddenly, dramatically better. But another factor is an open secret that nine out of 10 iPad owners will tell you: As fun and functional as they are, tablets just aren't yet sufficient to replace a real, honest-to-goodness PC.

And that's where Surface succeeds so brilliantly.

The idea of melding a tablet and a laptop together isn't new. Other manufacturers like Asus and Lenovo have tried it before, usually coming up with something that looks like a laptop you can split in half. Surface wisely sidesteps this model by embracing its tablet-ness wholeheartedly. It's got a solid, slate form factor that's actually thinner than the iPad, and a screen that's about the same size. But Microsoft has figured out a way to give Surface the feel of using a PC, even though the device itself looks materially different than any of its forebears. It pulled this off by getting three things right.

1. Touch Covers

This was one of the genuine "gee-whiz" moments of Surface's unveiling on Monday. The tablet's magnetized Touch Covers are as thin and unobtrusive as any other such cover made for competing devices, but the inclusion of a razor thin (just 3 mm), full, QWERTY keyboard on one side elevates the whole experience of using the device to another level. It's an elegant solution that addresses what is usually cited as the number one shortcoming of tablets—the necessity of a separate, dedicated keyboard for serious productivity.

2. The Kickstand

Kickstands have been around on cell phones for years—usually as a kind of cute gimmick. Yes, smartphone displays are getting better (and bigger) all the time. No, people don't want to set their phones up like mini flatscreens and watch Inception. A tablet, though, is a different story. The beautiful, comparatively large display is half its reason for existing, so incorporating a kickstand for easy viewing is a natural fit. Add in the Touch Cover keyboard and what seemed at first like a trifle could suddenly open the door to hours of comfortable, productive, laptop-comparable computing. 

3. Windows 8

Windows 8 is Surface's killer app. Microsoft built the new operating system from the ground up for precisely this sort of hybrid laptop/tablet experience. It's got a beautiful, multitouch-optimized "Metro" user interface that's been well received in early reviews, but also packs the full suite of desktop applications that billions of users are already dependent on. Even the less fully featured Windows RT version of Surface should be well equipped to approximate the full PC experience, given that Microsoft Office and other marquis apps will be compatible at or near launch.

On stage in L.A. Monday evening, the parade of Microsoft execs, including CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, did their best to conjure up the kind of atmospheric magic and anticipatory glee that have become the hallmark of Apple keynotes. But in reality, the contrast between the two companies remains as stark as ever. Microsoft is constitutionally incapable of doing what Apple does, and the same goes for the reverse. One entity lives or dies by extremes, while the other is built on compromise.

Surface is a breakthrough because it represents the most elegant of compromises. By innovating in ways that would never come out of Cupertino, it blows open Steve Jobs's overzealous "three devices" paradigm and promises to bring things back down to a more practicable two. And if there's anything the arc of technology tells us about the number of devices people want in their lives, it's that less is always more. Microsoft, to borrow a famous exultation from the late Jobs himself, may have finally cracked it.

 

Previously on UnGoogleable: Search Without Search