Microsoft's Surface tablet will be the first genuine rival to the iPad, creating as much excitement among enterprise users as Apple's tablet did when it first arrived.
Microsoft recently unveiled its Surface tablet, which will run Windows 8 and is expected to be on sale later this year. It's unusual for Microsoft to build its own hardware, so development of the Surface is a reflection of the importance that Microsoft puts on the tablet market - and the difficulty that Apple's rivals have had in countering the success of the iPad.
And it could be that the Surface will be the first tablet to give the iPad a proper run for its money, because when asked, "Will Microsoft's Surface tablet provide a real alternative to the iPad?" the TechRepublic CIO Jury responded yes by 10 votes to two.
Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority, said Microsoft's entry into the market represents "tremendous promise" for corporate IT. "The buzz, even among corporate iPad users, is very strong," he said, while Kevin Leypoldt, IS director at Structural Integrity Associates, said: "I can say with confidence that we are very much looking forward to a tablet that has a fully-fledged Microsoft office suite available. From an enterprise perspective this has been the one of the few missing pieces in the tablet market."
Jeff Canon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America, said he was getting as many requests for the Surface as he got for the iPad when it first came out. "Users seem to be excited for the product… as long as it performs as well as demonstrated," he said.
The Surface will answer a lot of the concerns that corporates have with Apple products in the enterprise, said Adam Gerrard, CTO at Laterooms.com, who argued that from both a business and consumer perspective, the Surface will complete a strong product line-up that will challenge Apple's dominance.
"Having a consistent interface on your phone, tablet, desktop and even TV and games machine with the Xbox, suddenly puts Microsoft back into the market as a major player after a long time without an answer to the mobility solutions on offer from Apple and Google," he said.
Many IT organisations have been reluctantly supporting iPads until now, and so a successful Windows tablet would be welcomed by many as a way of providing an alternative tablet device that fits their existing computing infrastructure.
As Matthew Metcalf, director of IS, Northwest Exterminating, put it: "Do not underestimate Microsoft's entrenchment in the enterprise and the level of frustration IS professionals have with some of Apple's 'integrations' to the enterprise."
Scott Kerr, head of IT at Scotmid, said success will depend wholly on the user experience and how well it integrates into other Windows operating systems, adding "We are looking at the Surface tablets to deliver a seamless experience for business users across phones, desktops and tablets. Something the iPad doesn't do."
Ben Denison, CIO at the Bar Council, said the Surface will be attractive to business, because the interface will be more familiar, but he added: "I'm not parting with my iPad, though...".
Madhushan Gokool, IT manager at Storm Models, said: "The tablet and smartphone markets definitely need a bit of a shake-up and I think [the Surface] is in with a fighting chance."
But Graham Yellowley CTO of equities, risk and client service at LCH Clearnet, said while the Surface tablet looks pretty and the kick-stand is a good idea, there is still a question mark over apps: "Will Microsoft be able to build a wealth of apps in time for launch and a mechanism to distribute them easily which could entice other users? Personally, I think it is too little too late. Apple have the market."
This week's CIO Jury is:
- Shaun Beighle, CIO at the International Republican Institute
- Jeff Canon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America
- Ben Denison, CIO at The Bar Council
- Adam Gerrard, CTO at Laterooms.com
- Madhushan Gokool, IT manager at Storm Models
- Scott Kerr, head of IT Scotmid
- Kevin Leypoldt, IS director at Structural Integrity Associates
- Matthew Metcalf, director of IS, Northwest Exterminating
- Joel Robertson, CIO at King College.
- Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority
- Richard Storey, head of IT at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust
- Graham Yellowley, CTO of equities, risk and client service at LCH Clearnet
Other members of the CIO Jury group made their opinions heard. Kevin Fitzpatrick, CIO at Sodexo Northern Europe, pointed to the scale of Microsoft: "With the huge installed base and familiarity of Windows in both business and personal markets, this will be the iPad's largest threat to date.
"Apple sells on style, design, ease of use and brand - it's the IT fashion icon at the moment. Microsoft trumps Apple on ease of use because everyone on the planet with a computer either is or has been a user. If the design is right, the market is huge - the world's largest apps library is already there."
Afonso Caetano, CIO at J Macêdo in Brazil, said: "I believe that the Microsoft Surface will be used for corporate solutions, as that has been the profile of new products launched by Microsoft in recent years. The iPad will still reign alone over the next two to three years."
However, other tech chiefs were less convinced by the Surface. Tom Galbraith, director of IT at the US District Court, said unseating the iPad is a formidable challenge: "Even if there is a compelling differentiating factor that Surface offers, Apple's first-mover advantage and their position as the standard by which all others are measured certainly tilts the odds in Apple's direction."
Brian Stanek, VP of IT at Namico, sounded a note of caution, as Microsoft's intention to offer the Surface with two different operating systems adds complexity.
"Microsoft likes their different flavours of Windows. I think one of the strong advantages that Apple has over Microsoft is the concept of a single operating system over all mobile devices. And you can upgrade for the most part without purchasing a new tablet."
He added: "Microsoft announced that the current Windows phone users cannot migrate to Windows 8 and now there are two versions of Surface devices. Will they be compatible? Will they be upgradable in the long run? If I purchase a Surface and Microsoft comes out with Windows 9, will I toss the tablets?"
He said that at least with the iPad, he can skip a release or two. "While there seems to be a lot of good in the Surface, and it would be more compatible with our Microsoft laptops, for now I will still suggest the iPad," he said.
And Scott Klauminzer, director of IT and security at Hacker Group, said: there are unanswered questions: "The Surface platform appears compelling, but the key issue they will need to solve is how this device will fit in with the enterprise platforms currently in place, laptops and desktop computers. If this is meant as an iPad competitor, then it must have a dead simple way to interact with the user's main system. How users get content onto the Surface will be the key."
Smith C Scott, director of technology at 32Ten Studios, said: "It will be years till the software is there for the functionality. Windows might help it integrate better, but I don't think that will be enough," while Edward Beck, vice president of IT for Line 6, said the Surface will provide another alternative for those seeking better Microsoft Office and related integration.
He added: "Unfortunately it may also mean driving upgrade requirements for other Microsoft Office users to get full operability. Some people will gravitate to these naturally, but the ecosystem for apps and other goodies will need to ramp up fast."
Want to be part of TechRepublic's CIO Jury and have your say on the hot issues for IT decision-makers? If you are a CIO, CTO, IT director or equivalent at a large or small company, working in the private sector or in government, and you want to join TechRepublic's CIO Jury pool, or you know an IT chief who should, then get in contact.
Either click the Contact link below or email me, steve dot ranger at techrepublic dot com, and send your name, title, company, location, and email address.
Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.