How Microsoft Surface Tablets Work

The Journey to the Surface

For the Surface to become a reality, many elements had to align within Microsoft. The company had a rocky history with tablet computers. Despite the enthusiastic response Bill Gates had at the 2000 Comdex event, the 2002 launch of the tablet PC didn't inspire consumers to come out in droves and adopt a new form factor. And though other manufacturers built tablets that relied on various versions of the Windows operating system, none of them did particularly well in the market.

But the company maintained an interest in developing innovative hardware, particularly around touch-screen interfaces. In 2007 at the All Things Digital conference, Steve Ballmer introduced the Surface table-top PC. It could detect multiple touches and even recognize specific devices placed on top of it. The secret was in the camera system inside the table -- it could track and identify objects on the Surface's surface.

In 2009, an internal Microsoft video leaked out to the Web at large. It showed off a two-screen tablet device called the Courier. Featuring what looked to be a customized user interface, the Courier allowed users to view content on one screen while creating content on another. Flicking between the screens let users integrate the two, moving notes to one page or the other. The Web buzzed about the possibilities of this tablet.

In 2010, Apple launched the iPad unopposed -- there was no Courier to be seen. Microsoft representatives refrained from commenting about the Courier, instead pointing out how Microsoft worked with hardware manufacturers like HP to bring Windows to tablets that way. By April 2010, news broke that Microsoft had canceled the Courier project [source: Johnson]. The team behind the Courier had approached tablet design much in the same way as Apple -- it was a device that complemented PCs but wasn't an evolution of or replacement for a computer.

Microsoft's goal was to create a tablet that supported its flagship products -- Windows and the Office suite of applications. And the company designed Windows 8 with touch-screen interfaces in mind. Microsoft optimized Windows 8's Metro mode for touch-screen displays. It seemed like only a matter of time before Microsoft incorporated these features into a tablet of its own.

Whether the Surface succeeds in the market remains to be seen. Microsoft is betting that there's a market for a tablet designed to support productivity software. Do people want a tablet that can act as a replacement for a laptop? And will they be willing to pay the price? Only time -- and the market -- will tell.