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Reality Absorption Field: The one-two punch (minus the two)

Ross Rubin

When Microsoft talks about getting into devices so that it can integrate hardware and software in a way that HP, Dell, Acer and others don't or can't, one does not have to ponder long which competitor it has in its sights.

But you can't accuse Microsoft of copying Apple's clean product segmentation between iPad and MacBook. Indeed, the latest Windows releases support devices that mash together the best of -- and worst of -- the notebook and tablet. Among these are the Surface RT and Surface Pro. With its long battery life and $499 starting price, Surface RT is clearly trying to take on the iPad. But Surface -- with its precious adornments such as the kickstand and typing covers -- seeks out a customer who is yearning to use a tablet for more of the kinds of things traditionally done with PCs.

Starting from scratch on the app front, Microsoft would have faced a tough enough situation a year ago, and even tougher in a 2012 holiday field that includes the lower-priced iPad mini as well as even less expensive 7" tablets from Amazon and Google. But at least Microsoft is in the game with the Surface RT.

Microsoft more recently announced that pricing for the Surface Pro will begin at $899. In any number of products we see the price of backward compatibility in a figurative sense. But with Surface, it can actually be counted. A $400 difference separates the Surface RT from its Intel-based sibling. It surpasses the Surface RT in several ways, such as having a higher resolution display and integrated stylus support. But it also falls short of the first Surface tablet in some key ways, most notably with half the battery life.

The closest thing in Apple's product line to the Surface Pro equipped with, say, the tactile Type Cover, would be the $999 MacBook Air, and it's not a bad matchup on paper. Both are about 2 lbs. and about 0.7" thick. The MacBook Air has a larger screen although the Surface Pro has a higher-resolution one. Still, while the 11" MacBook Air has been embraced by Mac users seeking the ultimate in laptop portability (as well as some early iPad users who've found it a better if pricier fit for its needs), it's hardly the heart of Apple's MacBook line.

Just as Microsoft has found itself "forced" to enter the tablet market to compete with the iPad, it will have to consider driving a further wedge between it and its hardware partners to take on Apple in the high-volume notebook business. The company has broadly signalled that it will forge ahead with its own devices if it feels there's an advantage to taking on Apple.

But there's still no evidence that its approach with Surface has been more effective than the similar moves it made with Zune. There, Microsoft sacrificed its relationship with hardware partners in the name of taking down a device with a huge marketplace lead. Not only did its efforts crash and burn, but in doing so provided an opening for Apple to build upon key factors of its iPod success with the iPhone.

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