June 19, 2012, 11:03 AM — Microsoft's venture into selling company-designed tablets is fraught with risk, but tops on one analyst's list is the firm setting itself up as its own rival.
"Microsoft will be its own worst enemy in this market," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research, in a Monday blog posted after the Redmond, Wash. developer unveiled its new Surface, a line of 10.6-in. tablets.
"The worst thing that could happen to Microsoft's Windows RT tablets is Windows 8 on x86," argued Epps, referring to the two distinct models in the Surface line-up.
On Monday afternoon, Microsoft executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, chief of the Windows division, introduced the not-yet-available Surface tablet, which will be sold in two flavors.
One, tagged the Windows RT Surface, runs Windows RT, the new edition that works only on devices powered by ARM-licensed processors. ARM CPUs drive virtually every mobile device, from smartphones to tablets, including Apple's iconic iPad.
Windows RT, a major departure for Microsoft in more ways than one, is the company's attempt to break into the lucrative consumer-oriented media tablet market.
But Microsoft will also sell the Windows 8 Pro Surface, a tablet that, while identical at first glance to its Windows RT sibling, runs the more traditional Windows 8 on hardware powered by Intel processors.
Because that second Surface relies on an Intel chip -- a quad-core i5 from the just-released "Ivy Bridge" architecture, the same used in Windows laptops and as of last week, the one packed into Apple's MacBook Air and the least-expensive MacBook Pro -- will run all legacy Windows applications as well as the newer Metro apps that Microsoft and others are developing. It will also be heavier -- by half a pound -- and slightly thicker than the Windows RT tablet, although by other external appearances it will be identical.
And that's the problem Rotman Epps foresees.
"Microsoft and its partners need to articulate a compelling strategy for how they will manage consumer expectations in the channel," she wrote. "Consumers aren't used to thinking about chipsets."
Possible confusion could dampen sales, or worse. "Selling x86-based tablets in the same retail channels as Windows RT tablets will confuse consumers and sow discontent if consumers buy [the Windows 8 Pro Surface] and think they're getting something like the iPad," said Epps.