Microsoft Surface goes on sale to cheering crowds

The Windows RT machine won't run old software

About 100 people waited outside Boston's Microsoft Store Friday to buy the company's new Surface tablet, which runs a new version of Windows.

Unlike previous versions of the operating system, Windows RT runs on an ARM processor, typically found in mobile devices, instead of an x86 processor, which is used in traditional desktops and laptops. One of the major drawbacks of Windows RT is that it won't run any old software. All applications will need to be downloaded from the Windows Store, but that didn't deter some Boston customers.

"It has Microsoft Office, which is the most important reason I'm upgrading from my iPad," said Joshua Jasper, a veterinary hospital manager who was waiting to buy the tablet. "My biggest concern is app selection, but I know that will grow over time."

See the Surface at the Microsoft Store in Boston in a video on YouTube.

IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell shared Jasper's concerns. "When I looked in the Windows Store I thought, 'Wow, there's not much there,'" said O'Donnell. "There were a lot of cheesy phone-like games in the store, but of course Office is huge," he said.

"My biggest concern is that people are going to get these tablets, realize their limitations and then return them in droves," he said. He said that the biggest challenge for Microsoft is explaining the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT to consumers "because they are very different."

O'Donnell predicts about 10 percent of buyers in the PC and tablet markets want a PC-tablet hybrid.

At the Microsoft Store in Boston, about two dozen Surface tablets were available to try out. The interface was fluid and responsive for the most part. The screen was bright and vibrant and text was very easy to read. Some of the apps took longer to launch than expected, though. For example, it took the Xbox Games app about 10 seconds to fully load.

One of the accessories available for Surface is a keyboard that doubles as a cover. It costs $100 when purchased along with the tablet. It will likely take some getting used to as there's no tactile feedback when a key is pressed. The cover is surprisingly thin and clips securely onto the tablet. There were no wires or pairing needed for the keyboard to work.

The first customer in line at the Boston store wanted to buy the Surface because he thinks Microsoft's ecosystem is broader than Apple's.

"I had a MacBook Pro for a while, but I switched back to Microsoft," said Mounir Koussa. "I can have a desktop, a laptop, a phone, a tablet and [the Zune] music service all in one."

O'Donnell said that there will be "huge sales and lots of confusion" in the tablet market in the coming months. He thinks that Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and Google's Nexus 7 have good chances at capturing some of the market, but he believes that Apple will continue to dominate.

The Surface has a 10.6-inch display and weighs 1.5 pounds (680 grams). It starts at US$499 with 32GB of storage.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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