With the Surface, Microsoft beats Google, not Apple

Everyone is focusing on the wrong fight in evaluating Microsoft's new Windows tablet

Last Friday, I drove to the Florida Mall in Orlando, walked past the Apple Store, and went right into the Microsoft Store. The Apple Store was packed. I would've felt pretty bad if the Microsoft Store were empty, but to my delight and surprise, it was even more crowded with wall-to-wall Surface RT tablets, every new make and model of desktop and laptop, all running Windows 8 and a crowd loving the launch event at the store.

I went from table to table, played with everything, then sat down and fiddled with the Surface for two hours. I loved the Touch Cover but preferred a tactile one. I found all the same issues with navigation that Galen Gruman mentioned in InfoWorld's formal review of the Surface RT. I really liked the kickstand and USB port (why can't Apple give us one of these?) But when all was said and done, I walked out of the Microsoft Store and into the Apple Store to request an iPad Mini. It wasn't in yet -- the first models arrive in stores this Friday -- but I would have bought one if it were available.

[ Read InfoWorld's in-depth review of the Surface RT tablet. | Learn how Windows Phone 8's security compares to iOS and Android. | Windows RT and group policies: What you need to know. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter.]

Part of my problem with the Surface RT is the 16:9 form factor, imposed by Microsoft's hardware specs for Windows 8 and RT. It felt too long, just like my Samsung Slate running Windows 8 does. I prefer the 4:3 size of the iPad. However, I appreciate that the length and size is what lets the Surface have a fully functional, full-size keyboard cover. Plus, my videos play perfectly on the 10.6-inch screen size and 16:9 aspect ratio.

I was a bit taken back by the Surface's price: $600 for a 32GB model with the black Touch Cover. Yes, I know a 32GB iPad costs the same price, but I figured that Microsoft wouldn't charge as much as Apple. Still, the Surface has a USB port and an SD card slot, so there's no need to spend the $100 more for the 64GB model when a thumb drive or SD card is cheaper.

During my two-hour hands-on fest with the Surface, I kept asking myself how Microsoft expected to compete against Apple with Windows 8 and the Surface. Then it hit me.

I looked at my phone and realized that after three years I had switched to Windows Phone from Android. I didn't go to iPhone (I'm a Windows guy, after all), but I couldn't stay with Android. It always felt clunky, like it was open source -- which in many ways it is. I wanted something more professional, and Windows Phone is perfect. It feels like the device was made by one company and thus works cohesively, even when I'm using third-party apps from the Windows Store.

Now I get it: Microsoft is not trying to take out Apple with its first punch. It's simply looking to gain market share from the popular but more vulnerable Google. Think of it this way: A boxer steps in the ring for the first time. Does he go right up against the champ? No, he takes on lower-ranked contenders first. He builds up his experience before going after the title. Microsoft has the same strategy for its Surface tablets.

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