Microsoft unveiled two new tablets, called Surface, in Los Angeles on Monday. They are more than iPad competitors; they are flagships for the beleaguered software company’s Windows 8 operating system, and proof that Microsoft wants to delight consumers as much as it does corporate drones.

One device is more of a traditional tablet, running on the same processor architecture found in most other tablets and cellphones today. The other is more of a small laptop or MacBook Air competitor. Both have detachable keyboards that act as screen covers (you can choose a traditional keypress or a thinner cover with touch-sensitive keys that is sure to be irksome).

Microsoft has built extendable flaps into both devices, so they can stand upright on their own without need of an accessory. (Never underestimate the power of a kickstand. My old Evo 4G cellphone had one and it was the envy of many an acquaintance who didn’t seem to notice how otherwise clunky or lacking the phone could be.)

Despite the company’s name, Microsoft is no stranger to the hardware business, with mixed results. There have been mice and keyboards. The X-Box 360 is the best-selling video game console of its generation. The Kin phones were a $1 billion mistake.

By making its own tablets, Microsoft competes not just with Apple, which owns much of the tablet market, but its own hardware partners, who are themselves planning to build and sell Windows 8 tablets.

Unlike Apple, which builds integrated products, Microsoft makes most of its money licensing software to third-party manufacturers. Perhaps it is trying to emulate — with more success — Google’s strategy of creating and selling benchmark phones to showcase the potential of its mobile operating system.

Beyond Microsoft’s intentions, there are other mysteries, including the prices and release dates of the two tablets. Price will be a major test — consumers have shown a reticence to buy non-Apple tablets unless they are priced low. (See Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which initially took off with a $200 price tag.)

At least one thing is clear: These new tablets are pretty. I just hope they weren’t made by Chinese wage slaves. That would take the shine off the Surface.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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