Yesterday’s announcement from Microsoft about its Surface family of tablets is lacking in detail, but it is possible to see the angle that Microsoft is going to pursue.
Surface comes in two forms: an ARM-based, Windows RT-reliant version, and an Intel Core i5-based, full Windows 8 version.
Off the bat, we should discard the ARM version. This device is aimed at consumers, and, as a device that comes with an instance of Windows that is restricted purely to Metro, it goes head-to-head with the iPad, and therefore suffers all the problems that any new entrant into the tablet market would expect. The lack of apps, momentum, and mobile data will prevent this Surface from making inroads into Apple’s iPad hegemony.
But the Intel version is most certainly a horse of a different colour. This version of Surface sits between ultrabooks and tablets. It comes packed with an architecture and chip that has more power than any of the ARM-based tablets thus far, but it will likely sit under the performance offered by the new Ivy Bridge ultrabooks.
The real winner for business with this Surface is that it is running an instance of Windows 8 Professional, and will therefore have access to the classic desktop within Windows 8 to run the existing catalogue of Windows programs.
If you want apps, forget the various application stores. How does the entire Windows back-catalogue sound?
These apps might not be pretty, optimised for a touch experience, or available for purchase with an iTunes card, but they are the same applications that users have become accustomed to for years, and IT departments have been maintaining and bug fixing them for years.
You know that shocking internal application built to work with Windows 95 that your company’s programmers have updated and carried screaming into the future for the past 15 years? That’s going to work on this tablet.
If senior management wants an application to work on a mobile device, they could re-engineer the existing business application to work on iOS via Objective-C, or take said program online to be platform neutral. Or they could just buy a tablet where the existing application works fine. For large, complex applications, I’d expect the manager to take the last option every time. This would also minimise the need for business administrators to port applications to mobile platforms, and deal with the issues of keeping feature parity between two codebases for the same application.
Then comes the issue of enterprise deployment and management infrastructure. This is a Windows 8 device we are talking about; it can be serviced using the same set of tools and skills that corporate administrators already have. Locking it down and pushing custom software to it will remain as easy/painful as ever.
The other bonus that Surface provides is its USB port. Want extra storage with an external drive? Need a full keyboard and mouse? Want to hook up that USB rocket launcher? It’s no problem at all, and you don’t have to visit an Apple Store to look for an adapter.
Microsoft has made a large song and dance over the keyboard covers that will come with Surface. While they appear, at first glance, to be unique and quite an innovation, I doubt that they will be the primary avenues of input for business users. Similarly, I don’t expect the Surface’s display to be the primary screen that its business users work with. Instead, it’ll likely be plugged in to a large display and keyboard for heavy usage.
The Intel-based Surface is shaping up to be a step towards that dockable PC/tablet/smartphone device that we’ve all been promised.
It’s powerful enough to field a proper operating system, small and light enough to be carried like a book, and has the customisation and backwards compatibility that enterprises are going to love.
As an Angry Birds device, it will not be able to compete with Apple’s offerings — but your local system administrator is likely to see the Surface as a solution to the BYOD dilemma.
Now we just wait and see whether Microsoft manages not to cripple it with an inadequate GPU, insufficient RAM, or a prohibitive price. Otherwise, I think we have a business hit on our hands.