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Microsoft woos mobile users, aims at Apple

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Microsoft kicked off sales of its revamped Windows 8 system and Surface tablet Friday amid mixed reviews as the tech giant ramped up efforts to compete in a market shifting rapidly from PCs to mobile devices. 

A screen displays the logo of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system at a press conference for its launch on October 25 in New York City. The company kicked off sales of the system and its Surface tablet Friday amid mixed reviews as the tech giant ramped up efforts to compete in a market shifting rapidly from PCs to mobile devices.

Analysts said Microsoft, which unveiled its new efforts Thursday, is trying to walk a fine line by keeping hundreds of millions of Windows users worldwide while accelerating efforts to compete in the mobile world dominated by Apple and Google.

Windows 8 represents a compromise by Microsoft -- with new featured added for touchscreens while supporting the vast number of older Windows devices.

Some consumers may embrace the change, but businesses may move more slowly to adopt the new operating system, which is based on "tiles" on the computer screen.

"There is a learning curve but it's relatively small," said Michael Gartenberg, analyst with the research firm Gartner.

"Microsoft's challenge now will be to educate the market why different is also better and then teach them how the changes work. Consumers have learned to use mice, trackpads and touchscreens so they are clearly open to trying new things. Businesses will likely adopt through phased migrations over time, much as they've done in the past."

Kash Rangan, analyst at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, noted that Windows 8 "has received mixed reviews from the press but we believe it creates an important opportunity for Microsoft to tap the mobile market as PC growth moderates."

Frank Gillett at Forrester Research said that while Microsoft is used on some 95 percent of PCs, the company has only about a 30 percent share of "personal devices" which include PCs, smartphones, and tablets.

Gillett said he sees slow adoption of the new operating system, both on the consumer and business side, because of dramatic changes in look and feel.

"They are forcing everyone to deal with a new interface, and are alienating a lot of the power users who don't want that," Gillett said.

"I think the enterprise IT guys will go quite slow. And on the consumer side, you will have a lot of people who will find it daunting."

Surface, which seeks to challenge Apple's market-ruling iPads and rivals built on Google's Android software, appeared to get off to a good start. On Microsoft's website, orders were being taken for shipment "within three weeks," suggesting strong demand.

"It's really a new class of device that sees the tablet and PC experiences merging into a single device instead of discrete ones," Gartenberg said.

"It's a different approach and a lot will depend on consumers who try the device hands on and see if it works for them."

Surface -- a late entry in the market -- has a 10.6-inch (26.9 centimeter) screen and starts at $499, challenging the larger-format iPads.

But Surface appears to be a cross between a tablet and a PC, equipped with a flip-out rear "kickstand" to prop it up like a picture frame and a cover that, when opened, acts as a keypad to switch into "desktop" mode for work tasks.

Rangan said Surface "feels perfectly sized for watching movies, reading books/magazines or for productivity tasks."

"While it's an expensive accessory, it is a very good add-on in our opinion as it functions well and brings the tablet closer to being a laptop replacement."

A review on the technology blog Cnet was less enthusiastic, saying Surface "feels strong and well-built" but offers "sluggish performance" and that the Windows Store for apps "is a ghost town."

Gillett said the device is "great" but fails to deliver the full potential of either a laptop PC or tablet.

"Microsoft has to define market categories in which it will compete and not compete," he said. "And they need to start selecting 'premium' partners and curating the ecosystem. There are too many devices out there. They want to be like Apple but they can't make everything."

But Douglas McIntyre of the financial website 24/7 Wall Street said Microsoft appears to be moving forward.

"For just a moment, Microsoft may have emerged from Apple's shadow," he said.

"Windows could surprise the market if its new design and normal Windows upgrades help drive robust sales. And expectations for Windows Mobile are so modest that Microsoft may well top them."

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