With the recent announcement by Microsoft of its own tablet hardware, I find myself in a similar position as many iPad owners -- that is, wondering if I'll ditch my Apple iPad for a Microsoft Surface tablet once they're released. While there are still many questions around the Surface series of devices, here's what Microsoft will need to provide for me to ditch my iPad for their newest tablet offering.
How I work
It's helpful to understand how someone works before accepting their thoughts on a computing device as gospel or deeming them as an object of ridicule. For example, as someone who travels constantly, light weight and portability are major concerns for me. I spend my days interacting with a variety of computing devices that perform desktop-centric tasks (writing this article, for instance), but I also use a tablet as a digital notepad of sorts when interacting with clients. Thus, a multi-role device like Surface is very compelling.
Requirement 1: Ubiquity
A key selling point of Surface and Windows 8 is an ability to perform multiple computing roles. The new touch-centric Metro user interface is obviously geared toward tablets, and a more traditional Windows desktop lurks in the background.
From a hardware perspective, Windows devices have often worked well with docking stations, and I would demand that Surface be no different. In addition to a traditional desktop dock, the keyboard covers demonstrated by Microsoft seem to indicate Surface could also act as a thin and light laptop. If Microsoft is able to create a device that can act as a tablet, desktop, and laptop, while keeping the same settings, applications, and data, that's a huge selling point.
It's likely years off, but I envision a scenario where a Surface dock becomes as ubiquitous as Apple-compatible docks that adorn hotels around the world. It would be awesome to drop your tablet into a compatible dock at a hotel (or at a client or customer site) and work on a full-size screen and keyboard.
Requirement 2: Fast and light
The iPad changed the rules of the game for speed, size, and longevity in a tablet device -- it's usable milliseconds after hitting the power button, lasts through an entire workday, and weighs less than Atlas Shrugged. Microsoft needs to be in the same ballpark as the iPad on all these features. The devices recently previewed certainly check the size and weight boxes, and hopefully Microsoft has managed to achieve similar parity with longevity and speed.
Requirement 3: Apps
This may be Microsoft's biggest struggle with Windows 8. For the first time, there's a Windows version in the form of Windows RT that's not compatible with legacy Windows applications. From a technical standpoint, adopting ARM support seems to be a wise move on Microsoft's part, and attempting to shoehorn x86 emulation into the ARM platform might be a recipe for user frustration. From a non-technical buyer's perspective, this just adds confusion. There is hope for Microsoft on this front, demonstrated by Apple's ability to rapidly discontinue products and support for them, but Microsoft users have long been able to assume compatibility, which is no longer the case with Surface and Windows 8.
Beyond compatibility, Windows developers will finally have access to a compelling tablet platform, but they'll need to retool their applications and development mindset to the Metro interface. The thought of writing one application that can run on Windows 8 desktops and tablets is surely attractive, but it's transition that won't happen overnight.
Requirement 4: Pen input
Even with iPad-like stamina and the benefit of supporting legacy Windows applications (assuming that there's an x86 version of Surface), Microsoft's offering might not be compelling enough for me to ditch my iPad. On launch day, tablet-specific applications will likely be in shorter supply than the iPad, and the ARM version will be facing a steep uphill climb on the application front.
Facing these difficult challenges, a big differentiator for my usage would be strong pen support. A Metro makeover of Microsoft's OneNote application could be the killer digital notebook I've been yearning for and something that Apple can't quickly respond to through accessories or applications.
Requirement 5: Mobile data
One aspect of the iPad I don't frequently use but find very helpful is its treatment of mobile data. Aside from choosing among the mobile networks your iPad will support, there are no contracts, subsidies, or "lock-in" with the device. There's also an ability to sign up for a data plan right from the device on a monthly basis, without contracts or other foolishness. It's unclear if initial versions of Surface will even have mobile broadband support, but I hope they not only provide the requisite radios, but also easy access and relevant plans.
Similarly, Apple's current cloud offering is relatively weak for enterprise users, who are unlikely to be impressed by cloud music and photos. Microsoft has made strong moves in the cloud arena, and if they could deeply integrate their cloud offerings into Windows 8 and Surface, it might be another compelling and hard-to-replicate feature vs. the iPad.
Granted, it will be a few months before I can touch and feel Surface and decide if it's worth abandoning my iPad. However, we'll all be winners in the enterprise space with Microsoft once again throwing considerable resources behind tablet computing.
What features and capabilities do you require from Microsoft Surface? Share your list in the discussion thread below.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are Patrick's alone, and may not represent those of his employer.