With Apple Inc. dropping down a weight class and Microsoft Corp. entering the ring for the first time, this week marks the closest thing to a fair fight in the tablet market.
On Tuesday, Apple is expected to unveil what is being called the "iPad Mini," a 7-inch tablet designed to give the company a slice of the growing niche that exists somewhere between the standard 4-inch smartphone and the 10-inch tablet.
Officially, Apple is reverting to its usual coy demeanour ahead of the announcement, refusing to acknowledge such a device even exists. But many observers expect that, after years of dismissing 7-inch tablets as much too small to be useful, Apple executives have had a change of heart.
But as the technology world waits for the latest Apple announcement, there's a far more significant tablet coming just three days later. Friday, Microsoft will start selling its own device, the Surface. Announced this summer, the Surface received generally positive initial reviews from the tech press. But the tablet also marks one of Microsoft's rare forays into the hardware business.
In reality, the Surface and the expected smaller iPad have little in common, even as both companies face risks in somewhat unfamiliar markets. But whereas Apple is attempting to tap a new revenue source, Microsoft is making a much bigger bet.
Much of the Surface's significance comes from the fact that it arrives at the same time as Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft's ubiquitous operating system, and the most substantial overhaul of the software since Windows 95. The Surface will act as an early indicator of whether consumers are ready to accept computers (specifically, mobile computers) running on a version of Windows that looks very different from its predecessors.
Although Microsoft likes to frame Windows 8 as an operating system that's equally useful on desktops and mobile devices, it is clear the new software was designed primarily for the mobile world. It is essentially a hybrid operating system -- one interface, called "Metro" is built for touchscreens, with floating tiles representing various apps and widgets. The other interface looks more like the Windows experience of the past 15 years, and can run software not designed for the Metro interface. In effect, Microsoft is betting big that consumers will, over the next few years, ditch desktops for mobile computers, and Windows 8 is aimed at easing that transition.
But Microsoft's move is not straightforward. For one thing, the company is offering two vastly different flavours of the Surface. The one coming this Friday, and starting at $519, runs on Windows RT -- basically, just the Metro half of Windows 8. That means the tablet can run apps, but it won't be able to run the majority of non-app software designed for older versions of Windows. A second (likely much more expensive) version of the Surface, running on a full version of Windows 8, is also due for release, but Microsoft has not announced when that model will come out, or exactly how much it will cost. Ideally, the company hopes the Windows RT model will lure some consumers away from Apple's iPad line, and the Windows 8 model will compete with higher-end laptops.
Whether the Surface manages to do any of this, however, is uncertain. Whereas the smartphone market has seen much more competition in recent years, the tablet space is still dominated by the iPad. This week, Apple hopes to expand that dominance to a subset of the market its late founder Steve Jobs once dismissed as not worth targeting.
The iPad Mini (if it does exist) marks a recognition by Apple that there is a customer base for smaller-size tablets. When RIM introduced the 7-inch PlayBook in April of 2011, Mr. Jobs famously didn't think much of the device or the 7-inch screen size in general. But since that time, other companies, such as Amazon, have found some success with smaller tablets.
For Apple, a smaller iPad with a similarly smaller price tag could attract new customers, including avid electronic-book readers and price-conscious consumers. One of the few downsides of such a move, however, has to do with perception. If Tuesday's launch reveals little more than an shrunken iPad, it may give critics more cause to believe the company has put innovation on the back burner, and is now simply trading on the popularity of its existing product line. That said, it is worth remembering that the iPad, when it was first revealed, looked a lot like an iPhone with a bigger screen, and that worked out fairly well for Apple.