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Microsoft has unveiled its new "Surface" tablet-like computer, a device that was one of the worst-kept secrets of the year.
The potential of this device is sure to divide commentators but the big question will be "can it out-iPad the iPad?".
Of course without having actually had any hands-on we can only glean information from published specs and the observations of the lucky-few that have seen one of the prototypes "in the flesh".
Conceptually though, I tend to wonder if the Surface will be to the iPad what various Microsoft Windows-based phones have been to the iPad and what the Zune was to the iPod.
No matter how well it performs, no matter how cleverly it is marketed, great swathes of consumers will always see the Surface as a "knock-off" and an attempt to play "me too" in a sector almost totally dominated by the iPad.
It is interesting to note however, just how much effort Microsoft appear to have put in to the styling and build-quality of the Surface. Perhaps they realise that much of the iPad's success is due as much to aesthetics as performance.
I'm not going to re-list all the features of the Surface here, there are many better-informed commentators who are itemising those aspect's of the device. Instead, I'm going to consider whether the tablet is here to stay.
To be honest, I have to wonder how much of the market's fascination for tablets is to do with sexiness rather than ergonomics and functionality.
Yes, the iPad does some stuff really well but it is still (IMHO) a niche product rather than a general-purpose device.
Although I was one of the few to predict a bright future for the iPad in the lead-up to its launch, I'm a little more reserved in my optimism now.
For a start, the form-factor is awkward -- although perhaps no worse than a netbook or laptop.
A big, flat device doesn't slip into your pocket and will require a decent sized bag or case in which to carry it.
Such devices tend to be oriented strongly towards content consumers rather than activities involving a great deal of user interaction. A virtual or rubber-sheet keyboard is no substitute for a set of tactile keys.
The Surface does have a separate key "pad" which may (nobody's actually reported how well it works) mitigate some of the criticisms of tablets for data-entry -- but anything more than casual use would almost certainly produce a risk of RSI.
However, the real problem with the current generation of portable computing remains that of the display.
All of today's gear is built around that horribly inflexible, large, power-hungry display -- and that really places limits on size, shape, portability and endurance.
Perhaps it'll only be once we have "fold-up/roll-up" displays or (perhaps even better) virtual displays that the true potential of these portable computing devices will be realised.
Maybe the future of portable computers will involve having no display at all -- at least no screen as such.
I've been reviewing the Sony HDR-PJ760V video camera and one of the features it offers is a very, very tiny projector which looks just like a camera built into the back of the fold-out LCD. Despite its tiny size, this projector casts a fairly impressive image that can be as large as the plasma or LCD you've got in your living room.
We're already used to seeing "virtual screens" in science fiction movies (Minority Report etc) and I think it's only a matter of time before a more simplistic variation on this technology becomes the backbone of portable computing.
Now a computer that requires careful positioning to project its display on a nearby wall might be somewhat annoying -- but what about one that comes with a set of glasses (like Google's Glass - but better) or a small device that clips onto your existing glasses and then displays a full high-resolution image directly onto your retina?
This might give the definition of "retina display" a whole new meaning.
For the growing audience who are primarily "consumers" of media and data, an interactive voice response system along the lines of Siri would eliminate the need for a keyboard and a tiny camera could provide a Kinect-type virtual point/click interface.
I have a feeling that in a few very short years, we'll look back on the iPad and Surface in the same way we look back at the Osborne Portable -- wonderful game-changers but devices which soon became somewhat laughable due to their significant limitations.
Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the tablet will revolve around the mobile phone. It'll have a virtual screen with HD resolution, voice recognition for data entry and camera-based virtual point/click capabilities for interaction.
Won't the iPad and Surface look dated and clunky then?
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