It seems that nothing animates technology giant Microsoft like strong competition. Decades ago, Netscape ignited a fire within the company that turned Internet Explorer from a half-baked accessory program into the world's dominant browser. Even in the seemingly ancillary gaming market, Sony's dominance awakened the sleeping beast and brought us the Xbox.
Apple has been one of the few companies to withstand a Microsoft full frontal assault. The Zune MP3 player flopped against the mighty iPod, Microsoft's Windows Mobile smartphones were forced into a complete rethink in a post-iPhone world, and now the iPad owns the tablet market — one that Microsoft spent over a decade trying to perfect and dominate..
With Windows 8, Microsoft has clearly turned its cannons on the tablet market, adopting the old axiom that "if you want it done right, do it yourself." Previous generations of Windows tablets suffered from recurring complaints about clunky hardware and poor battery life, and at least on the hardware front, Microsoft has delivered a compelling alternative in the form of the Surface tablet.
With Apple-like secrecy, Microsoft announced a pair of tablets running Windows 8 — one based on an ARM platform and running Windows 8 RT, the other sporting a familiar Intel chipset and running the Pro version of Windows 8. Physically, the device seems to represent that ever-elusive beast: a Windows tablet that maintains the size and weight of the iPad.
In a refreshing break from the sea of similar tablets, it seems as though some thought and care went into the design of the device, with expansion capabilities that Apple has traditionally shunned in the form of USB, HDMI, and memory card slots, in addition to a larger HD-quality screen. There's a larger screen onboard, and an exceptionally cool magnetic cover that apes the "smart cover" from Cupertino in the physical sense, but adds a full keyboard and touch pad with minimal additional size or weight. Combine this with Windows 8 features like Microsoft Office, and you have a device that allows "real work" versus those of competitors.
Could Surface save Microsoft in the tablet space?
While Microsoft can be credited with being the first to successfully commercialize tablet computers, they never gained much traction outside of niche business users. Previous versions of Windows revolved around pen-based input on tablets, which suddenly seemed archaic in a world driven by touch. Microsoft has attempted to answer the user interface with its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, offering the best of both worlds: compatibility with familiar applications and a touch-driven tablet experience. The key remaining question was whether Microsoft's hardware partners could produce a device that matched the iPad for size and longevity, as well as industrial design and overall sexiness.
We are certainly left with some questions around the Surface tablet, mainly around pricing and battery life, but the initial glamour shots coming from the press event make it clear that Microsoft has invested time and treasure in producing a good looking product. Similar to the hardware, we've seen glimpses of Windows 8 in its RT guise, the presumptive choice for tablet users. Essentially, Microsoft has laid several pieces of the puzzle on the table, but it remains to be seen whether they can be assembled into a cohesive whole. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is taking the tablet battle to the next level by offering their own branded hardware.
For the enterprise, this presents several opportunities and threats. With Surface, Microsoft is clearly targeting enterprise users by presenting two variants of the tablet and including expansion capabilities that enterprises would likely favor. Microsoft has an obvious advantage in the enterprise market than the other tablet players but is a relatively untried commodity on the hardware front. Aside from Microsoft-branded mice, most companies own little Microsoft hardware. The biggest risk is that the hardware venture, and Windows 8 itself, represent fairly radical shifts for the company. These are big bets that could pay off for Microsoft and its customers, or potential flops that leave enterprise customers holding the bag.
On a positive note, having a single vendor producing the hardware and operating system theoretically makes for a tightly integrated computing experience, and presumably a more seamless support experience as well. Previous Windows tablets have been plagued by bad drivers and strange, minor incompatibilities between hardware and software. Microsoft's device would hopefully alleviate these issues.
The final risk for Microsoft and enterprises considering its offerings is one of timing. The product appeared close to release but was not offered for more than a cursory inspection. Microsoft was also elusive on price, an obvious concern to consumers and enterprises alike. In any event, Microsoft has stepped up its attack on the tablet market with a cannonade in the form of the Surface tablet. If your deployment can wait a few months, Surface looks like a very viable option for the enterprise.
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. He 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 his and may not represent those of his employer.