- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I was planning to write about something important — some new software — this week, but like a pushy diner at a groaning buffet, Microsoft Corp. elbowed its way in.

Monday’s announcement of the Surface tablet computers, manufactured by others but bearing a Microsoft brand name, was meant to fire a shot across the bow of Apple, which has dominated the tablet market since the first iPad offering two years ago.

As others in and around the industry have noted, Microsoft knows how to sell peripherals such as mice and keyboards, but they don’t have a great track record on larger hardware, the Xbox game console being a notable, pained exception. It’s a success now, but getting there took a while.

Indeed, the Microsoft “model” over the past three-plus decades has been to develop the operating system and applications software that other manufacturers have built systems around. Walk into the Microsoft Stores in either Tysons Corner or Pentagon City, and you’ll see desktop and portable models from Sony, Samsung, Acer, Hewlett Packard, Dell and so on. There’s nary a Microsoft-branded computer to be found.

So come now the “Surface” tablets, iPad-challenging devices with a keyboard built into the cover, due later this year weighing 1.5 pounds and boasting a 10.6-inch high-definition touchscreen as well as front and rear facing cameras, for taking pictures and video chat. One model will aim at consumers with an “RT” version of Windows that hasn’t been released, the other, using Intel chips, will run a full version of Windows 8, already in public Beta, and aimed at business users.

The levels of equivocation underneath all this are many. The “Windows RT” planned may or may not be closer to Apple’s iOS operating software for the iPhone and iPad, being a smaller, tighter piece of code designed to support only these items (and future ones). If so, that’s a plus, but which applications will run on it? What about Microsoft Office, which remains the dominant enterprise productivity software? (Or, for that matter, what about OpenOffice, which is a clone of the Microsoft product but also is very popular?)

Such larger applications would run on the larger Surface tablet using an Intel processor, but again, price comes into play. And if the Windows 8 version on the “business” tablet is just warmed over from the desktop, there will be a lot of overhead, in terms of code, that users won’t likely need, want or appreciate. Windows, with its legacy of supporting all sorts of hardware, is of necessity bloated with the drivers and other bits necessary to do so.

There’s another series of questions left hanging here: what apps will run on the “consumer” tablet, as well as the enterprise model? The key, the absolute key (in my opinion) to the roaring success of the iPad (as with the earlier iPhone) is the vast array of applications generally specific to the platform. There’s a stripped-down (but very useful) writing app called Writer, there’s apps to scan documents and handle the result (filing, email, whatever) and there’s a bunch of programs for PDF file reading, annotating and sharing.

None of the apps I described above are very expensive or very complicated. They all handle the things many business people need. QuickOffice Pro HD is under $20 for the iPad and under $15 for Android tablets via Amazon’s Marketplace. How much would even a “lite” version of Microsoft Office cost? No one’s saying yet.

And some nifty things for the iPad won’t move over. At deadline, I asked FileMaker Inc. spokesman Kevin Mallon about whether the firm will move the just-announced Bento 4 — a useful mini database program you’ll read about here, soon — to the new Microsoft devices. “We have no immediate or future plans to support any platform other than the Mac OS and Mac iOS,” Mr. Mallon responded.

If other developers balk — and if consumers balk as well — Microsoft, like Hewlett Packard’s “Touch” device nine months ago, might have a fire sale on its hands.

• Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.