If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Microsoft must really like Apple, judging by the many similarities between Microsoft’s recently launched Surface tablet and the ultra-popular Apple iPad.

At first it’s a little cute. Then it gets a little creepy. And then 0:50 happens. Ouch. Watching Microsoft’s president Steve Sinofsky struggle with the device as it appears to crash right in the middle of this monumental event was downright painful. Talk about a rough day at the office.

Wait for 0:50… ouch!

Or perhaps it’s the other way around? After all, didn’t Microsoft launch a tablet PC back in 2002? Man, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s worse: being ahead of one’s time or lagging behind while you’re working on cool new technology. How about both?

But let’s get back to the new Surface tablet, shall we?

Announced as the “ultimate stage for Windows”, Microsoft unveiled its new family of tablet PCs on June 18th at a “secret” location (which turned out to be Hollywood).

And while Microsoft didn’t receive a fraction of the media attention Apple happily basks in when making a major announcement, it looks like the Surface could prove to be a serious competitor for the iPad. More surprisingly, it also looks like mighty Microsoft has made a significant change in its business strategy.

Is Microsoft abandoning its successful business model?

Microsoft has built a veritable empire with its “we make the software, you make the hardware” model. But with the Surface, it has seemingly dropped this model in favor of building the tablet itself.

Then again, it’s not the first time Microsoft has chosen to handle manufacturing. In additions to accessories like mice and keyboards, it already builds the Xbox console and the Zune music player. Wait, the what now? Uh… never mind.

What’s to like

– Two optional covers with keyboard and touchpad. Will they be as ergonomic and useful as they look? Given Microsoft’s strong expertise in terms of keyboards and mice, they had better be.

– Compatible with software developed for Windows 8. Users will have access to thousands of software.

– USB ports and a long list of interesting “on-the-go” features that Microsoft explains perfectly well on the Surface website.

What’s not to like

– Two optional covers with keyboard and touchpad. Will we really want to use them that often? Microsoft might have trouble convincing application developers to work around either hybrid interfaces or two separate interfaces.

– Compatible with software developed for Windows 8. Not all these applications have been designed for a touch screen.

– Two distinct Surface tablets with different operating systems and processors. This means they won’t necessarily have the same applications. By trying to please as many people as possible, Microsoft runs the risk of confusing everyone.

With the Surface slated to be launched only this fall and Microsoft vowing to keep mum on their prices until then, any attempt to predict its chances of success is merely a crap shoot. Since the iPad appeared on the market two years ago, no other tablet of comparable quality has been able to beat its price (unless if you count RIM’s fire sale on unopened crates of Playbooks).

iPad: a souped-up smartphone?
Surface: a toned-down ultralight laptop?

The Apple iPad has more in common with the iPhone than the Mac (although the soon-to-be-released OS X Lion Mountain might change this a little). Meanwhile, the Surface has already been compared by Microsoft to the Ultrabook. So while the iPad is more of a companion to your Mac, the Surface could eventually become a replacement for your PC.

With Apple’s highly efficient supply chain and production management, the iPad will be hard to beat for price. The question is, will Microsoft try to sway some of them with a lower price tag? And more importantly, will the Surface be as reliable and smooth as the iPad?

Written by JP Mercier Employee @ SherWeb

JP is SherWeb’s community manager. He has been working for IT companies since 2010, in both the software and cloud computing industry. JP has a degree in communication and specializes in online marketing. As a good Canadian, he is (overly) polite and loves hockey.