San Fransisco: When Microsoft Corptook the wraps off its Surface tablets on Monday in Los Angeles, it was the brightly hued keyboard that stole the show.
The "Touch Cover" - a protective cover-cum-keyboard - could be a key differentiator for Microsoft as it tries to dent Apple Inc'siPad franchise, analysts said. It also represents the latest turn in an intensifying philosophical debate about how humans can best interact with their machines.
In the early days of the Apple iPad, argument raged about whether the device could succeed without a traditional keyboard--a question the gadget's subsequent popularity seemingly settled. But the iPad's "virtual" keyboard, which senses the heat of a finger on the glass screen, is considered by most users to be unsuitable for extensive typing.
Before the iPad, the debate centered on whether the free-form stylus was the best tool for telling a computer what to do. Apple's Newton, the original personal digital device, used a stylus, as did previous Microsoft entries in the tablet arena. But stylus solutions have since fallen out of favour.
Recently, the conversation has shifted to contact-less interfaces, including voice-commands, a concept that Apple's own Siri brought to the fore, and gesture-recognition, as demonstrated in gaming by Microsoft's own Kinect.
Researchers are now even experimenting with computers that respond directly to electrical signals from the brain. Eventually one might only need to think of what the computer should do to make it happen.
In the meantime, though, Microsoft is betting that an improved version of the tried-and-true will be enough to make a difference.
The Touch Cover technology was developed at Microsoft by a researcher named Stevie Bathiche, according to Panos Panay, leader of the team that created the Microsoft Surface.
Executives showed off two keyboard models on Monday. The Touch Cover features an ultrathin design of 3 millimeters, without mechanical keys. A second, called the Type Cover, is 2 millimeters thicker and includes mechanical keys.
Both operate using the same multi-touch digitizer, which Microsoft said is 10 times faster than any keyboard in use today. The Touch Cover uses pressure-sensitivity to detect when a user is trying to input keystrokes, as opposed to simply resting fingertips on the home row.
"It knows the grams of force coming off my fingertips," Panay said as he demonstrated the product.
The keyboard clings magnetically to the Surface and can remain attached as a cover. It can be folded back while still connected, and its internal accelerometer turns it off while in the closed or folded-back position.
Rick Sherlund, an analyst with Nomura Securities, said the keyboard could be a critical feature for people who use the tablet not just for reading or viewing or browsing the Web, but for creating spreadsheets or documents or other types of written content.
"Is Microsoft going to beat Apple with a sexier tablet? I don't think so," Sherlund said. But he added: "You're going to want a keyboard with anything related to Windows."