In addition to the new tablets, Microsoft also announced several accessories, including not only refreshes of its existing Surface keyboards but also several new products.
The Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 keyboards are lighter, thinner and more rigid than their predecessors. Both include backlit keys. Panay said the Type Cover follow-up allows users to type faster because the slimmer profile means the keys don't travel as far when pushed. He also said the Touch Cover 2 should be much more responsive; it features almost 1,100 sensors, more than 13 times the number in the original.
Microsoft also introduced the Power Cover, a sturdy-yet-thin keyboard with a built-in battery than can push the Surface Pro beyond 10 hours. The company will also sell a Surface docking station that includes one USB 3 port, three USB 2 ports, an Ethernet connection and a DisplayPort video outlet.
Microsoft will continue to sell Surface tablets and keyboards separately. The Touch Cover 2 will be $119.99, the Type Cover 2 $129.99, and the Power Cover and docking station each will cost $199.99.
Microsoft will also give new Surface owners free access to some of its core services: a year of Skype calls to landlines in more than 60 countries; unlimited Skype Wi-Fi at more than 2 million global hotspots; and 200 GB of SkyDrive storage for two years. Panay said the integrated services demonstrate that Microsoft is taking "huge" steps as it transitions into a "device and services" company.
In an interview, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said she was impressed with many of the new devices' features, such as improved out-of-box access to Skype and SkyDrive, which she said could help Microsoft gain traction among consumers.
"Consumers generally don't see Microsoft as sexy," she said.
She also said the new kickstand and keyboards should make the devices easier to use, and that Microsoft showed its commitment to Surface with future-looking projects, such as keyboards that it calls "blades," and that can be used for more than typing. One such accessory demonstrated at the event allows users to easily mix and create music by applying different amounts of pressure to a keyboard-like pad.
The first Surface tablets struggled to the tune of a $900 million write-down-- a debacle by any standard but particularly troubling for Microsoft, given that iOS and Android tablets have continued to soar while Windows tablets have floundered. Are the new devices enough to turn things around?
Time will tell. The buzz at the Surface event was ostensibly positive following the announcement, but Milanesi said Microsoft is still in a "tough spot." She noted that in the premium market, the Surface devices can't match the iPad's ecosystem, and that in the budget market, they're much more expensive than Android models.
The new devices can be pre-ordered starting Tuesday, and will be available Oct. 22, only a few days after Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 become available.