CEO Steve Ballmer shows off new hardware/software combo

Microsoft has entered the tablet race with Surface, a new suite of tablets unveiled at a press conference Monday in Hollywood.

While Surface will attempt to steal away market share from established tablets like Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle Fire, Microsoft sees it as a natural extension of the upcoming release of new versions of its operating system, Windows 8 and Windows RT.

CEO Steve Ballmer touted the new product as the ultimate merger of software and hardware. “Much like Windows 1.0 needed the mouse to complete the experience, we wanted to give Windows 8.0 its own hardware companion innovation,” he said.

Two separate models were showcased, including a built-in kickstand that allows the screen to stand up hands-free and a detachable cover equipped with a keyboard. The ultra-slim device is 9.3 millimeters thick.

Despite the Hollywood setting of the press conference, entertainment was not a big emphasis of Surface. Beyond passing remarks regarding viewers’ capability to use a variety of Windows apps to access gaming, video and music, little was said even about its highly anticipated integration with Microsoft Xbox video game console.

One exception was the inclusion of a Netflix app specially customized for Windows 8, the operating system behind Surface.

Pricing won’t be specified until closer to availability, but will be competitive with similar products on the market.

The Surface name isn’t new.

Microsoft already had spent years developing a large interactive tabletop screen called the Surface, which it had been showing off at the Consumer Electronics Show. The 40-inch HD touchscreen, that recognizes fingers, hands and objects placed on it, is designed to lay flat but can also be mounted on a wall.

Most recent version of the table device was said to be priced at $7,600. First version was $12,000.

Samsung was helping build the device, which companies like Red Bull, Royal Bank of Canada, Fuji Film and Sheraton Hotels and Resorts purchased for commercial use.

Xbox Live is believed to be accessible through Surface via the Xbox Companion App. And while other content apps weren’t specified in Microsoft’s presentation, any content brands available in Windows App Store should be on Surface as well.

Microsoft’s presentation just a few weeks ago at E3 was partly what fueled widespread speculation preceding Monday’s press conference that Xbox integration would be a focal point of the company’s table strategy. It was there that Microsoft introduced an application dubbed SmartGlass, enabling content producers to supply additional content to smartphones and tablets synchronized to programming playing on Xbox.

– Marc Graser contributed to this report

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