The Microsoft Surface and Surface Pro tablets seem to strike a nice balance between work and play. However, Microsoft will need more than a built-in keyboard to woo iPad users. Oh, and then there's the risk that the device is a slap in the face to Redmond's OEM partners.
By Jonathan Hassell
The tech world was surprised late Monday night by Microsoft’s announcement that it’s developing a tablet on its own. The Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Surface Pro are two very interesting devices, and they could represent a compelling offer for enterprises.
Here are some things for CIOs to think about, based on my view of Microsoft Surface and the overall proposition in general.
There are some clear wins here for users and corporations.
1. The built-in keyboard within the cover is a neat trick. Along with the Windows operating system, the keyboard makes this an attractive and differentiated platform from the iPad, especially for business users and the enterprises footing the bill for these devices. They’re not passing out iTunes players, after all. They’re expecting work to get done. A keyboard helps that, and assuming it works as well as it did during the press event, it could be a killer feature.
Moreover, the presence of the keyboard evens out potential price disparities, since it removes the need to purchase an additional popular accessory for the iPad separately.
I love my iPad, but making it useful for any sort of content creation outside minimally worded emails would require an external keyboard case, which can cost up to $150, on top of the price tag for an already expensive tablet. With Microsoft Surface, this is already taken care for you and your users.
2. Two Versions Are Not Too Many and Not Too Few. Basically, you have an either-or choice ahead. Clearly Microsoft Surface Pro is the tablet of choice for Windows geeks now; it will contain an Intel processor and thus eliminate the application compatibility problems that will plague the ARM-based Windows RT devices coming out. I think its also a safe assumption that the Windows 8 Pro version on the Surface Pro device will join a domain, participate in Group Policy, and do all the things we worried Windows RT-based devices wouldn’t do. It’s reasonable to expect this device to go for $850 to $1,000.
If you want a less expensive Surface device, the Windows RT-based model will probably be a few hundred dollars less expensive and, therefore, represent a lower-end entry point into the space.
3. Factor in the Capabilities and the Price Will Likely Be Reasonable. Microsoft will be forced to be competitive simply because it’s playing from behind. Additionally, because Microsoft doesn’t really need to pay itself a license fee to use Windows on its own hardware, it can spend that money on either better components or lowering the overall cost of the hardware itself. For a tablet and ultrabook all in one chassis, something less than $1,000 for Microsoft Surface Pro version is reasonable and probably low enough to stoke demand.
4. Microsoft Surface Is Not an iPad Killer. Yes, I say that as a plus. Microsoft does its best, most innovative work when it competes as an underdog. If it had set out to be an iPad killer, it would have failed most likely because the ethos in the communities is much different. Moreover, unlike Apple Microsoft actually has a value proposition for business customers. So it is a smart decision to play to those strengths and to not simply come out with an iPad imitator.
Sure, the Microsoft Surface devices are very well engineered and quite precise in their design. So Apple devices. Sure, the touchscreen and touch-first UI work is good. So is the touch-related UI work on the iPad as well. Both devices are good, but where the Surface truly competes is in blurring the line, which brings me to&
5. It Gets the Balance Right. You have Windows games and entertainment features, a pretty good Netflix app, and (with Microsoft Surface Pro) the capability to run all of your business applications, including those your company develops internally. It truly is the PC you could carry with you all the time, which in my view is a key bit.
For example, I carry my iPad most places since a large part of my is consuming content, researching, and being on the phone. The line where I stop using my iPad and migrate to my ThinkPad is very distinct.
When that line is blurred, as Microsoft Surface seems to be doing, you’re creating a new paradigm for technology usage— and that’s exciting. Whereas the iPad feels like a bigger version of the iPhone, the Surface and Surface Pro both feel like a device that’s a nice tablet and a nice ultrabook all put into one, not to mention usable in a variety of contexts by a variety of people. That’s a good thing.
CIO.com’s Shane O’Neill and IDG Enterprise’s Keith Shaw discuss the Microsoft Surface Tablet announcement.
5 Bad Things About Microsoft Surface
That’s not to stay there aren’t weak points with the Surface and Surface Pro. There are quite a few, and I hope the company will address them.
1. There’s No Cellular Connectivity. Both models are just Wi-Fi-only devices. It’s a shame, because some of the nice improvements in Windows 8 help with metered carrier-based data plans. Plus, really, you want to use a device like this wherever you are, and Wi-Fi isn’t everywhere yet.
On the other hand, this decision is somewhat understandable. Carriers would want some type of control over the device itself. Microsoft, having learned a lesson from the update travesties surrounding the Windows Phone platform, likely thinks it may be best to cut the carriers out of the equation entirely.
2. That Screen Sounds Really Small. The big push of a Windows tablet with a keyboard is that you can tell users, “Yes, you can use Outlook. Yes, you can use Excel.” If Outlook is nothing but scroll bars on a 10″ screen, though, this stance may have to be rethought. If you’ve ever tried to use Remote Desktop Protocol sessions on an iPad, you know what I mean.
3. Storage Options Are Limited. With the highest available storage specification for Windows Surface at 64 GB and 128 GB for Windows Surface Pro, one has to wonder if that’s enough for a productive PC? How much will Windows and Office take out of that 64 GB? Moreover, how much usable space will the 32 GB version have? It’s unclear if that’s a wise specification decision on the part of the software giant.
4. Will Things Always Be This Good? This is a softer point but, in my view, a really important one. That Microsoft would make the Surface devices on its own is a gut punch for OEM hardware makers. Microsoft’s also only selling this online or through its retail stores.
Monday’s unveiling raises a lot of questions.
Is it possible that this is a reference design?
Is it credible that Microsoft may be poking its OEM partners and, once they wince and moan enough, Redmond will license the Surface design to them?
Is this primarily a wake-up call? Is that why availability and other details are so murky right now?
If that transition happens, will OEMs then be permitted to remove cost from the model by using cheaper components, less engineering prowess and, in general, de-classing the device to get the price down?
The outlook here is a little cloudy and somewhat concerning.
5. This Only Solves Part of the Windows RT Problem. In contrast with the Surface Pro, the ARM-based Surface won’t run your old applications, won’t join a domain, won’t participate in Group Policy and won’t have any apps at first (with slow potential for growth in that regard too). Microsoft Surface will require third-party software to manage, including new software from network connectivity vendors to create VPNs, and it probably will be just as expensive as an iPad.
This begs the question: Who will choose a Microsoft Surface over an iPad? The keyboard is not the tipping point for this.
Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He’s also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.