What we don't know about Microsoft Surface

Microsoft fans are shouting hosannas, but yesterday's Surface tablet announcement raises host of important questions about the platform

Microsoft's Surface presentation yesterday was the first Microsoft product rollout that's generated any degree of excitement since Windows 95. By now you know there will be two versions: one running Windows RT, the other running Windows 8 Pro. They both have 10.6-inch displays running 16:9 aspect ratio (as opposed to iPad's 9.7-inch display at 4:3). They're both thin and light and -- we're assured -- fast and fluid. People who've touched the machines say they're physically gorgeous, although as best as I can tell, nobody's used the onscreen keyboard or the Windows 8 Pro model's pen.

The Windows RT version has a MicroSD slot, USB 2.x port, and MicroHDMI video-out. The Windows 8 Pro version has a MicroSDXC slot, USB 3.0 port, and Mini DisplayPort video-out. According to Microsoft's Video Gallery, the Windows RT version ships with Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview. I have no idea what "Preview" means. Windows RT runs on an Nvidia ARM chip, but we don't know which one. The Windows 8 Pro version will run on an Intel "Ivy Bridge" i5 processor -- but there's no word about the i5's speed.

We haven't a clue what kind of displays will come with these machines. Microsoft identifies the Windows RT version as having a "ClearType HD" display, while the Windows 8 Pro version will have a "ClearType Full HD" display. No, this isn't the same thing as ClearType, the subpixel rendering technology, which is notably absent on the Metro side of Windows 8. Presumably, the Windows RT display must run at least 1,366 by 768 pixels to accommodate Metro Snap. The "Full HD" moniker on the Windows 8 Pro version would seem to indicate the display is at least 1,920 by 1,080 pixels -- part of the presentation very briefly mentioned 1080p -- but we really don't know for sure. As for a screen as gorgeous as the Retina display ...

We don't know who's manufacturing the tablets, although we do know that Surface is good enough to scare LG out of the tablet business. They both use 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi antennas of an unknown brand. We also don't know if one or both will have 3G or 4G capabilities. We don't even know how much RAM will come with the tablets.

Stability? Microsoft Windows chief Steve Sinofsky's Surface Windows RT demo froze at least twice, once when he tried to pull down the app bar on IE10 with the Bing page showing, and once when he tried to run the Netflix demo. It's hard to extrapolate reliability from a five-minute demo, but we're only four months or so away from general availability.

There's nothing definite about delivery dates, although Sinofsky promised that Surface Windows RT would ship around the time of Windows 8 general availability (widely believed to be in October), and that Surface Windows 8 Pro would ship around three months later (thus, likely next January). Why will it take three more months for the Windows 8 Pro version? Not a clue.

Prices are an unknown, although Sinofsky said, "Suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC," leading most of us to believe the Windows RT version will sell for $600 or so and the Windows 8 Pro version for $1,000 and up. Sinofsky also said, in the same context, "OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT." What does that mean in dollars and cents? Hard to say.

We know that the Surface tablets will be available at the brick-and-mortar Microsoft Stores, and "through select online outlets" of the Microsoft Stores. That's not exactly a beachhead into Apple territory, much less a full invasion. Will people be able to order them outside the United States, and if so, how? No idea.

CEO Steve Ballmer and Sinofsky certainly have irate hardware manufacturers to deal with this morning -- but the HPs and Dells and Acers and Lenovos of the world deserve it. At least the Surface tablets show some real innovation -- and they won't have all that crapware.

Although most of the Microsoft-centric tech world behaves as if Surface is something totally new, Apple's known about it for a year -- at least, it was warned about it. One year ago this month, Digitimes in Taipei published a prescient description (registration required) of the Surface shtick: "Microsoft is reportedly considering to launch an own-brand tablet PC that features Windows 8 by the end of 2012 with cooperation from Texas Instruments and Taiwan-based OEMs/ODMs, according to sources from the upstream supply chain."

That's exactly what's going to happen.

This story, "What we don't know about Microsoft Surface," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.