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Microsoft to build iPad competitor

Foray into hardware will impact the company's dealings with customers

Microsoft has revealed a competitor to Apple's iPad tablet computer, called the Surface, marking its entry into the hardware side of the tablet sector for the first time. The company claims the new device "merges the best of PCs and mobile computing".

The Surface will come in two versions. The first will be slimmer, lower-powered and run on chips using the ARM architecture, a departure from the Intel x86 CPUs which all previous versions of Windows have required. It will also only run a version of Windows called Windows RT, which features the company's recognisable new Metro user interface but doesn't have a traditional Windows desktop. The second version is significantly weightier, and will run hot enough to require a fan, but uses a more conventional hardware set-up and can run the full version of Windows 8. This latter tablet will also have a higher resolution screen and a built-in pen.

In its presentation, Microsoft sought to differentiate the tablet from the iPad. Minor differences, such as the pen, as well as the existence of a USB port and a kickstand to prop the Surface up in landscape orientation, were emphasised, as well as some larger ones; Microsoft showed off a case which was similar in size and shape to Apple's Smart Covers, but featured a fully working keyboard. With this, as well as the ability of the larger tablet to run the Windows desktop, Microsoft is strongly attacking the perceived limitations of the iPad.

At the launch event, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer told the audience that "we wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation." But the entry into the hardware business will come as a shock to many of Microsoft's partners. Although the company has produced hardware in other sectors, it has previously been loathe to build anything which could be seen as competing with licensees of its Windows operating systems. By producing a tablet which not only runs the low-power Windows RT operating system, but also Windows 8, Microsoft is directly competing with companies such as Asus and Lenovo which manufacture similar devices. This is likely to lead to a distinctly uneasy working relationship, not only with tablet manufacturers, but also with those companies like Nokia and HTC which use the Windows Phone operating system – they will surely be wondering if they are next.

As well as any mention of how entering the hardware business would impact Microsoft's other concerns, there was one other major thing left unsaid. Steven Sinofsky, president of Windows, who gave the presentation, even said "now let me talk about availability and pricing," before not really doing either. The ARM tablet will ship around the same time Windows 8 does (also unconfirmed), while the Intel one will follow a few months later. Pricing will be "competitive".

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.