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Microsoft Surface Takes On iPad With Secret Weapon: The Keyboard

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In the hours leading up to Microsoft's surprise event, it had become clear the company was going to introduce its own tablet. As the announcement neared, I wondered what would differentiate a Microsoft tablet from Apple's mighty iPad, causing casual shoppers to look it over in the electronics aisle and decide that it's the tablet they need to buy.

Well, some men bring knives to gun fights, while others bring guns to knife fights -- and Microsoft just brought a keyboard to the tablet fight.

Rolled into the back cover of the new Microsoft Surface, is a magnetic QWERTY keyboard, which can fold out and under the tablet, allowing for more familiar laptop-like text input on the tablet's screen. When done typing, you can simply fold the cover to the back of the tablet, where it becomes a protective case.

This is the secret weapon. A keyboard. And you know what? It's brilliant. That keyboard could, by itself, seduce a lot of tablet buyers, especially those who want to use their tablets for work -- not just watch, listen and flick birds across the screen.

With the Touch Cover keyboard, Microsoft successfully names and exploits the iPad's greatest weakness: Typing on glass is a pain, and nowhere near as efficient as typing on a real keyboard. While there are keyboard accessories for the iPad, they often add a lot of bulk to the device, require an outside power source and are just generally inelegant.

Microsoft's solution to Apple's keyboard problems is seamless and looks terrific. For anyone considering a tablet as a portable productivity device, the Surface should immediately jump into consideration. And all because of that slim little keyboard.

In some ways, the Microsoft Surface is a nice-looking tablet with a pitch that we've heard from many hardware manufacturers before. It has a USB port, a microSD slot and a removable battery. It's thin, it's light and it will be "competitively priced." The 10.6-inch display, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, looks lovely for watching movies.

But again, we've heard that all before, and none of those add-ons or perks were enough to even make a bleep on the iPad's radar. We've seen thin, light tablets with lots of ports, removable batteries and neat-o operating systems attack the iPad and limp away with weak sales. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, we even saw dozens of tablets running Windows 8 -- from Acer, Asus, Azkaban or wherever -- that inspired no confidence and caused no excitement in the tech world.

Only the Kindle Fire -- a smaller tablet, with an incredibly low price tag -- succeeded in denting Apple's incredible dominance in the tablet space. And even now, Kindle Fire sales have cooled off considerably.

The Surface appears to be the third tablet -- after the iPad and the Kindle Fire -- to get the general public along with the tech world excited for a new tablet. "Surface" trended for hours on Twitter following the announcement. The unveiling of the Surface rocketed to the top of Reddit, the so-called "front page" of the Internet, amassing tons of praise in the comments section. Even without a set price or a release date, technophiles are energized.

What makes this announcement different, is that the excitement has not been generated because of RAM, pixel count or any other particular spec. It is because of the new functionality that Microsoft has presented -- a functionality that has obviously been missing from the tablet marketplace. The built-in kickstand props the tablet up and the built-in keyboard rolls out for you to type, just as you would on your laptop.

This is a powerful message for Microsoft to sell to enterprise buyers looking to make bulk purchases of productivity tablets for employees. It can also be a strong sell to everyday people, who view tablets as potentially helpful, portable devices for home and office use.

On its first day in the wild, potential buyers are listening and they seem interested. Will they still be listening in four months, when the first Surface tablets are rumored to be released?

Who knows?

We have only just -- and I apologize in advance for this -- scratched the surface.

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