IS IT an iPad killer or a poor imitation? Has Microsoft's Surface, announced on Monday, out-Appled Apple in the tablet PC department, or is imitation merely the sincerest form of flattery? Or is it really theft. Or plain coincidence?

That's a debate (some might call it an argument) that has been raging since Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled the Surface tablet computer on Monday, and it's not going to go away at least until Microsoft backs up the hype it has created over the product with an actual release date and pricing.

Whatever the Surface is, you had better believe that Microsoft believes it has what it takes to challenge Apple's overwhelming dominance of the tablet market with its iPad, which is now in its third incarnation. Microsoft, remember, is primarily a software company. It makes software, which its hardware-manufacturing partners, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, pre-install on their computers and then sell to consumers. With the Surface, it's taking a leaf out of Apple's book and doing both the software and the hardware itself.

Apart from the fact that it might annoy its hardware partners by doing that, it is also, in a way, replicating its last great success story, the Xbox 360, when it also branched out into hardware manufacturing.

At first glance, and despite being named after an earlier Microsoft flop - a commercial table-top touch-computer that would have sold for $10000 - the Surface is a pretty slick device. It has two things the iPad doesn't that immediately stand out - the built-in "kick stand" that flips out from the back to keep it in an upright position for watching movies, and a keyboard built into the cover, which attaches magnetically to the edge of the Surface in a suspiciously similar way to how Apple's Smart Cover attaches to the iPad.

There are two versions of the Surface. The Surface RT uses an ARM processor and runs the Windows RT operating system, which means that, like the iPad, it will run only software that has been designed to run on it, although it will come with a version of Microsoft Office.

The Surface Windows 8 Pro, on the other hand, will have a Core i5 quad core chip like the chips in current Windows laptops and will have the full Windows 8 operating system, so it will be able to run regular old Windows applications as well as those designed specifically for tablets.

The keyboard also comes in two versions - a flat, 3mm-thick touch-screen keyboard and a thicker (5mm) keyboard with raised keys, both of which are built into the detachable cover.

It is 0,3mm thinner than the iPad and it has a 10,6-inch screen compared with the iPad's 9,7 inches. Screen resolution is 1366 x 768 compared with the iPad's 2048 x 1536, while the screen ratio is 16:9, which is better for watching movies in the wide-screen format than the iPad's 4:3 screen ratio.

But as slick (and made out of magnesium) as it may be, will it succeed? The Apple-haters and the Microsoft fanboys will argue that, in terms of how good it is, Surface RT will be as close to an iPad killer as we've seen.

The Surface Windows 8 Pro, they'll say, has the size and portability of an iPad but the functionality of a laptop computer and will appeal to consumers who require more from their tablet computer than just being able to consume content, rather than actively using it to create things. Or, as Ballmer described it on Monday, Surface is an entertainment device "without compromising the productivity that PCs are uniquely known for".

Microsoft haters and Apple fanboys will say the Surface is just too far behind in the apps game to ever catch up, with most software developers creating apps for devices that run Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems and already staying away from Windows Phone in their droves.

Judging by the secrecy that preceded and surrounded Monday's press conference, Microsoft has bet the farm on the Surface.

It has jumped the gun on hardware manufacturers to which it has already licensed Windows 8 for use in yet-to-be-released tablet computers and it seems, with the Surface, to be actively encouraging users to move away from desktops and laptops - its lifeblood - and towards tablets. Nothing says "post-PC world" like Microsoft abandoning the PC.

In my view, though, the Surface will turn out to be the "too little, too late tablet".

ogradyk@bdfm.co.za