Microsoft has unveiled its own tablet device, named Surface.
There will be two versions of the device. A lighter version will use chips based ARM Holdings designs and run the Windows RT operating system, designed for ARM chips. The other will use Intel chips and run its forthcoming Windows 8 Pro operating system.
Both have a single USB port and a 5mm-thick, touch-sensitive cover that serves as a keyboard.
The Windows RT version will available later this year, with the Windows 8 Pro version following 90 days later. Pricing "is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC," the company said.
For businesses, Surface’s appeal will lie in its support for Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office software, the ability to reuse their Windows management tools and their general familiarity with the Windows platform.
Nevertheless, as device selection is increasingly in the hands of employees, its success may rest on its popularity among consumers. Microsoft’s XBox gaming system shows that it can successfully sell consumer hardware, but its failed Zune MP3 player and Kin mobile phone show it is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Michael Gartenberg, research director at Gartner, warned that the ARM and Intel versions of the tablet might be a hard difference for consumers to grasp.
"This is a bold move from Microsoft, Gartenberg said. "They did not trust their partners to deliver their vision of Windows 8 and mobile computing, and felt the stakes were high enough that they needed to do this themselves.
"It does come with a potential risk of alienating partners who now find themselves competing with Microsoft directly in addition to competing with Apple."
The announcement is a vote of no confidence and a competitive threat for its traditional hardware partners, such as Dell and HP. Dell’s Latitude Tablet range runs Microsoft Windows 7 operating system, while earlier this year HP unveiled a new Slate tablet that also runs Windows 7.
Unlike the smartphone market, the tablet operating system market is still very much dominated by Apple. According to the latest figures from IDC, after a brief uptick over Christmas 2011, the proportion of tablets shipped with Google’s Android mobile operating system fell from 45% to 32% in the first quarter of this year.
IDC predicted that Apple will continue to dominate the market for some time, but the release of Windows 8 and Windows RT-based tablets would challenge Android’s number two position.