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Switched On: Sell the hardware, attract the apps


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Microsoft has finally revealed details on the pricing for the all-singing, all-dancing Surface RT. True to Steve Ballmer's word, the Windows RT device is priced competitively with the iPad. It is, in fact, the same price as the entry-level, now not-so "new iPad" and with double the flash memory, an advantage that may change by the time the Surface ships.

The commercial shows off the device's signature hardware features -- the kickstand and touch keyboard cover -- and plays up the "click" they make when they attach to the Surface, which is of course similar to the "click" made when an Apple Smart Cover connects to an iPad. And in a bit of irony for a product that is more focused on tapping than the mouse clicks of the desktop mouse, its campaign slogan is "click in." (It also raises the question as to why people would be constantly attaching the sold-separately touch keyboard when it doubles as a cover, but it is a commercial after all.) While expensive relative to the price of the device, Microsoft's keyboard covers represent an extension of one of Apple's best-conceived iPad accessories (the Smart Cover) and far exceed one of Apple's worst (the original iPad keyboard dock).

Surface RT is in some ways the more pure of Microsoft's Windows-driven tablet plays -- without most of the legacy support for Windows desktop apps of its Intel-based sibling. And so, as with all operating systems before it, Windows RT will rely on a catalog of apps -- cultivated by its developer -- to create a rich Surface experience. The inclusion of Office RT is a double-edged sword. The now ARM-compatible office suite offers marginally touch-optimized productivity and wide compatibility out of the box, but it is not a great showcase for the Windows-style user interface.

If Windows Phone, which has much in common from a development perspective with Windows 8, is an example, Microsoft has spent much time and effort in building that app library since it rebooted its mobile strategy and has not only begun to reach a critical mass of apps, but also attracted apps that tend to take good advantage of the operating system's features, notably Live Tiles. One unique advantage that Windows RT will enjoy, though, is the benefit gained from cross-platform (Windows 8 and Windows RT) development that will exploit the scale of Windows notebooks. Microsoft is also sweetening the revenue-sharing deal for apps sold via its Windows app store, which has led to the company proclaiming it as the greatest developer opportunity ever.

Also looking at Windows Phone, however, most of the apps created for that operating system have had counterparts on iOS and Android. This makes some sense as developers are unlikely to be interested in Windows Phone unless they are interested in mobile software development generally. Still, if the same apps are available on Surface RT and iPad, why would one choose Surface RT (or an RT tablet in general)? Beyond Surface's clicky hardware amenities and accessories, it will come down to a preference for features such as the panoramic Live Tile home screen, which avoids much of the icon clutter of the iPad, side-by-side apps, and Charms, which allow apps to communicate with each other in a more standardized way than we see on Apple's tablet.

These points, though, are too subtle to communicate as an opening salvo for Surface, which will be sold on the promise of more transparently bridging the consumption-oriented mode of the tablet with the productivity-oriented one of the PC.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin.

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