When asked, "Does Microsoft's Surface tablet provide a real alternative to the iPad for enterprise users?" the TechRepublic CIO Jury narrowly voted yes, by seven votes to five. But when asked the same question a year ago, before the launch of the tablet, the answer was a resounding yes, with 10 votes for and only two against, suggesting that Microsoft has failed to capitalise on significant early enthusiasm from enterprise decision makers.
Microsoft recently revealed that it has generated $853m from its Surface line-up since first releasing the product line in October last year. Analyst firm IDC estimates that Microsoft shipped 900,000 Surface RT and Pro devices in the first quarter of 2013. But these are tiny numbers compared with Apple's shipments of iPads, and Microsoft has recently cut the prices of both the Windows RT version and the enterprise-focused Pro model.
Microsoft's laptop in tablet form
In their comments to TechRepublic, members of the CIO Jury ranged from very optimistic to seriously underwhelmed by Microsoft's "laptop in tablet form", which Microsoft hopes can stop Apple's iPad and a variety of Android-powered slates undermining its position on the enterprise desktop.
Andrew Paton, group manager IT services at Rondo International, said the main attraction of the Surface was that you can still use all traditional Windows software, with additional touch-based applications coming through.
"It is a far better alternative to the iPad as it is manageable through already-in-place and existing enterprise tools that do not require a new skillset. In other words you can have a manageable standard operating environment in no time. Connections to all the normal peripheral devices and monitors are also an often overlooked and important advantage over the iPad," he said.
And David Wilson, IT manager at VectorCSP, added: "I don't see the iPad as a business tool in most cases. It's a blown-up phone. The Surface is a computer. There is a real difference."
Jerry Justice, IT director with SS&G Financial Services, said Microsoft had caused "mass consumer confusion" by offering the RT version of Surface but went on: "I think the Pro version with a slightly bigger screen would contend as a dual desktop replacement/mobile corporate device."
Joshua Grossetti, director of IT at Triumvirate Environmental, said the Surface is too big and bulky to be compared with the iPad, and the interface is not nearly as elegant and streamlined as iOS. But he said it might still find some enterprise fans: "Whereas in many instances the iPad is a great supplement to a laptop, as opposed to a replacement, the Surface may excel in being a better replacement for the laptop."
Need for Windows on a tablet
For some tech chiefs, the Surface appeals because they need Windows on a tablet. For example, Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine, said: "In the healthcare industry many vendors do not offer a web client for their apps. To use them natively, you need a tablet that supports touch but also can run Windows. Tablets from Dell and Lenovo can meet that requirement. iPads and Android slates require using Citrix or remote desktop to achieve a similar experience, which requires a higher investment in back-end infrastructure."
Similarly John Gracyalny, VP IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, said: "When my core vendor certifies with Windows 8, it will be the only tablet that will be able to run our user GUI software."
But not all tech leaders are so impressed. Jeff Focke, director of IT for Electrical Distributors Inc, said: "So far, my personal experience does not even have the Surface come close to the functionality I need to have it be a real alternative to an iPad (or even a few other options)."
And Thomas Galbraith, director of IT, US District Court, Southern District of Illinois, said technically speaking, the Surface may offer some superior features, such as local storage, but that the device may never get the opportunity to be assessed in a pure technical arena among major enterprises.
"The reason is that the Surface is already so far behind in the battle for the hearts and minds that the technical merits are virtually irrelevant at this point. The iPad and, to a secondary degree, Android devices already occupy the branding position and are in the mental forefront of nearly every enterprise employee. Those two brands/devices are the leaders in the consumer space, and it is that consumer space that is now encroaching into enterprise IT strategy."
Surface's price barrier
Gavin Whatrup, group IT director at marketing services company Creston, said Surface could make a breakthrough, but not at the current price.
"Functionally, the Surface Pro, with additional keyboard, is almost (but not quite) an ultrabook replacement. Speed, screen quality and portability are all top notch. But cost, screen size, connectivity and storage are all limiting factors. Why pay an ultrabook price for a fraction of the functionality?" Whatrup said.
"Also, the Surface doesn't have the emotional 'Velcro' of the iPad. So there is no overriding incentive to go for the Pro. Cut the price by 50 percent – yes, that much – and it may start to gain some traction."
Matthew Oakley, group head of IT at Schroders, said: "Surface isn't the game changer; it is Windows 8 on a tablet. The Lenovo tablet is brilliant. My iPad is gathering dust."
But Duncan James, infrastructure manager at Clarion Solicitors, said: "The bottom line is that they're not desirable items. We haven't had any requests for one to date".
That lack of demand means developers will feel little need to create specifically for Surface, he said: "If there's no demand, they simply won't waste their time to develop for the Surface."
This week's CIO Jury was:
- Delano Gordon, CIO at Roofing Supply Group
- Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine
- David Wilson, director of IT services at Vector CSP
- Jeff Focke, director of IT at Electrical Distributors
- Tom Galbraith, director of IT at US District Court, Southern District of Illinois
- Joshua Grossetti, director of IT at Triumvirate Environmental
- Juergen Renfer, CIO at Kommunale Unfallversicherung Bayern
- Gavin Whatrup, group IT director at Creston
- Matthew Oakley, group head of IT at Schroders
- Neil Harvey, IT director at Sindlesham Court
- Jerry Justice, IT director at SS&G Financial Services
- Keith Murley, manager of information systems at Schimenti Construction
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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.