The mobile computing market is at a critical juncture. Though Apple's iOS and Google's Android have established themselves as the leading platforms (by a long shot), there's still a window of opportunity for Microsoft. The king of desktop PCs fell behind early, but the smartphone and tablet markets may still be young enough to give Redmond a shot.

Microsoft apparently knows the pressure is on and is springing into action. BGR and China Times have independently reported that – in addition to its upcoming Surface tablets – Microsoft is in the late stages of developing its own smartphone. The device would reportedly release in early 2013, and would also be branded as Surface.

Microsoft's gamble on Nokia has produced some beautiful Lumia phones, but the sexy devices haven't found much traction with customers. If these new reports are true, then Microsoft is showing again that it's willing to tick off anyone in order to secure its long-term foothold in the post-PC era.

Turning Point

If the Surface phone rumors are true, how happy will Nokia be? (Digitally altered image)

The next year will be especially critical. Microsoft needs to take its wild card status, and turn it into an Ace of Spades. Specifically, Surface needs to be a big hit. If Microsoft can establish its own Windows 8 tablet as a serious challenger to the iPad, then it will have an inroad with customers.

This sensational entrance is necessary, because the smartphone market presents an even more daunting challenge. Millions of smartphone owners have already invested years of their money (as well as passion and comfort) into the iOS and Android ecosystems. It won't be easy to convince them to change course. Gaining foothold with the Surface tablet could provide the halo effect that Steve Ballmer and company need.

If, several months from now, millions of customers own and love their new Surface tablets, they'll be much more likely to consider a Surface smartphone. Though Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 are still separate pieces of software, they share the Metro (or whatever Microsoft calls it now) interface. This feeds into that halo effect, creating a mental association with what Microsoft hopes will be "the sensational Surface tablet." This gives Redmond a fighting chance.

There are a lot of "if's" here, though, and it all starts with Surface. Early signs point to it being a great piece of hardware, but even that won't guarantee great sales (just ask Nokia CEO Stephen Elop). The hardware, software, marketing, and timing all need to be damn-near pitch perfect.

An Epic Comeback?

Microsoft is ready to come out swinging (Digitally altered image)

Over the last few years, Microsoft has reinvented its style. The company, which has historically carried a stodgy image, now makes sexy devices. The new Microsoft may be one of the most exciting players in tech and it's got a decent sized war-chest to back itself up. No matter what platform you're a fan of, it's hard not to be rooting for a historical comeback.

What do you think: does Microsoft stand a chance in mobile? Or is the game already decided? Sound off in the comments!

Sources: BGR and China Times

Some image elements sampled from Writing for Designers, JIA Mom's Blog, WP Sauce, CIO, and BKBN