October 25, 2012, 11:55 AM — Microsoft desperately needs a "thing"a big thing that transcends the nerdy world of consumer electronics and achieves hero status among mobile-hardware wonks and civilians alike. The iPad is a thing. The Kindle Fire is a thing. Each tablet is a shared cultural experience that's practically effervescent in mainstream consumer appeal.
And now, with its Surface RT tablet, Microsoft is trying to create a thing of its own.
Surface RT must fulfill Microsoft's bid for relevance in a world gone hopelessly mobile. Surface RT must demonstrate that Microsoft can compete with Apple, Amazon, and Google in marrying hardware to software to credit card numbers in perfectly stacked ecosystems. And Surface RT must validate a splendiferous marketing spend, estimated by Forbes in excess of $1.5 billion, every dollar dedicated to making people really, really excited about, oh my God, have you seen this, it's Surface RT!
When Surface RT was unveiled in June, hands-on reports were unanimous in their praise of the tablet's hardware innovations. With a magnesium chassis, an integrated kickstand, and clever keyboard accessories, Surface RT flouts the standard rules of tablet design and defiantly declares, "There's a better way to build these things. The other guys have it all wrong. We have made things right."
The unveiling was four months ago. Today, Surface RT must prove itself against a barrage of new questions: Just how difficult are the Windows touch gestures? Just how competent is Windows RT, the feature-limited version of Windows 8 that gives Surface its name? And what about the $499 price tag of the entry-level Surface RT offering? Is it low enough to compete with the iPad, let alone other Windows tablets?
I've been using Surface RT every day for the past week, and I can testify that it's a fresh, fun reinterpretation of the basic tablet experience. But does Surface RT have enough, and do enough, to reach "thing" transcendence? Let's dig in deep to find out.
Most tablets are simple slabs of glass and aluminum devoid of moving parts. But not Surface RT, which dares to explore its own physicality in a very showy, public way.