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June 18, 2012 at 5:39 PM

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Microsoft's new Surface tablet: Keep hope alive

Microsoft is making its own tablet. Good.

The company announced Monday afternoon in Los Angeles that it will make a tablet called Surface, confirming an earlier report of tablet plans by The Wrap.

Microsoft has coasted for too long on fat margins from sales of Windows and Office while ceding ground, first to Apple, then Google and Amazon. The executives know this, and have known it for awhile.

Windows 8, the operating system that will power the new tablet, will mark a major turning point for the company because it is designed for touchscreens and finger pokes instead of a mouse and a keyboard.

The insidery tech industry question is can a software company succeed as a hardware company? Here's the company's win-loss record.

Win: Xbox and Xbox Kinect. (Note: The Xbox 360 did have a major manufacturing defect dubbed the "red ring of death.")

Loss: Zune music player. The (original) Surface, which was the size of a coffee table.

Microsoft either needs to make a tablet that people will crave, like the iPad, or a tablet that people will say "why not" to, like the Kindle. I don't know whether Microsoft can do either. I've sat in a lot of news conferences for Microsoft for new products where I've been underwhelmed. (I'm looking at you, Windows Phone "Mango" 7.5.)

But I have to keep hope alive. If Microsoft sells a few million tablets, it creates more jobs in Redmond. Then unemployment goes down, if our higher education system can produce people Microsoft will hire.

If tablet sales wow Wall Street, the stock will go up, after a decade of no action. If the stock goes up by a lot, people remodel their homes. They go shopping. They give to charity.

Besides, worshipping Steve Jobs is so 2006. I believe I can hope for Microsoft's success without placing oranges on the altar for Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

One last note: Microsoft must require fair, humane labor practices for whichever company it hires to build the Surface. That means reasonable work shifts, safe working conditions and proper disposal of industrial waste. The revelations in the New York Times about unsafe labor practices at Foxconn's iPad plant in China were shameful for the entire tech industry. In fact, opening the Surface manufacturing plant to inspectors from the beginning would be a great way to differentiate the Surface from the iPad.

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