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With the announcement of Microsoft's Surface tablet the company with one of the most storied histories in the tablet market is 'back' in the game. Stealing a page from Google's playbook the Surface is a Microsoft developed device running its yet to be released Windows 8 RT (the version running on ARM processors). A Windows 8 Pro version running on a third generation Intel Core processor is expected 90 days following the initial release. There is much to like yet much to also be concerned about regarding this product announcement.
The move for Microsoft to introduce its own tablet is clearly an interesting one given its history with OEM partners like Dell, HP, Sony, etc. One could argue that the 'appliance model' perfected by Apple is what Microsoft is looking to emulate and what is needed for the to succeed in today's market. While this move will undoubtedly leave many OEM partners concerned - especially considering Microsoft's potential pricing advantages - it should be interpreted as a message for them to elevate their games and bring innovation back to the table. Now is not the time for a dozen Ubuntu permutations to hit the market.
The benchmark against which all tablets are being measured for obvious reason is the Apple iPad. While this is an important measuring stick for new tablet entrants, it is equally important for new entrants to innovate - all too often absent in today's rapidly introduced 'me-too' products. While it is hard to envision the Surface eroding much of Apple's iPad position in the near term, it can seriously challenge Android's tablet fortunes in several markets (such as the enterprise).
Some of the more compelling attributes of Microsoft's Surface (from an enterprise perspective) include:
1. Windows OS.While the consumer is taking over and non-technical officers such as the CMO are gaining more control in mobile solution specification among enterprises (minimizing the role of IT) the fact remains that the installed base of Windows in the enterprise is massive and Windows represents the de facto enterprise computing platform for almost all organizations. Key assets such as Active Directory, SQL Server and Exchange Server and LDAP directories are too significant hurdles for most other vendors to overcome.
2. I/O. As much as the market laments the idea of using a keyboard with a tablet, the fact remains that for serious content creation, a physical keyboard is necessary. While the Surface's integrated cover/keyboard won't be mistaken for a traditional PC keyboard it has the potential to be a key differentiator. Moreover, other I/O ports such a USB (2.0 for RT and 3.0 for Pro versions) are important features.
3. Businesses Can Build and Run Custom Apps. (Although not as much a Surface as opposed to a Windows 8 benefit) using the Windows 8 development tools, companies can create their own applications that can be deployed within company firewalls, circumventing the public Windows app store. Apps can be viewed full screen on a Windows-based PC and support multi-touch technology. This is good news for ISVs looking to expand their reach into the massive PC market and offer custom applications for individual businesses.
4. New Security Programs. Windows 8 boosts Microsoft’s existing security tools with the addition of BitLocker Drive Encryption and AppLocker. BitLocker encrypts on the data that’s actually being used by an employee rather than all the data on a computer, hence decreasing the time it takes to secure a device. AppLocker allows companies to control which apps employees have access to in an attempt to curb accidental virus and malware corruption.
5. Display.While slightly the larger display (in comparison to the iPad) is compelling, the potentially killer attribute is the display's optical bonding. The key benefits of optical bonding (over other touchscreen approaches) is that it provides a richer experience by minimizing glare (critical in ambient light conditions) and improving contrast making the image clearer. The challenge is will be able to deliver this is at a price point on par with the competition.
6. SmartGlass. This represents some of the innovation that is sorely needed from Microsoft. While the core SmartGlass functionality is available on competitive platforms (such as Apple's AirPlay) the integration of various multimedia types (from gaming to broadcasting, for example) is unique.
Conversely, there are several attributes and concerns with the Surface that give us pause. Some include:
1. Apps. This can go both ways. The appeal of these devices is largely associated with the apps eco-system supporting various user experiences and use cases. Clearly AppStore and Android's MarketPlace dwarf what is available for Windows Phone 7 smartphones and now Windows 8 tablets. That said, while the volume of available apps running on Windows devices appears limiting (at a mere 100K) ALL the important/killer apps are available.
2. Timing. While Microsoft has clearly been patient with the development and pending release of Windows 8, announcing a product like the Surface well in advance of its actual release date could end up hurting them once the product becomes available. Although it was prudent for Microsoft not to rush out Windows 8, it needs to counter the momentum shift towards Apple and generate buzz around Windows 8 tablet solutions. However, similar to what happened to RIM with the Playbook release, maintaining a high level of interest and excitement between the announce and release dates is a challenge. Especially when what Microsoft needs more than anything else is units in users hands.
3. Enterprise Windows 8 Plans. The enterprise is in no rush to upgrade to Windows 8 in the near-term. In fact, if history is any gage, it will likely be 12-18 months before meaningful Windows 8 upgrades occur. Will enterprises invest in Windows 8 tablets in advance of traditional PC upgrades?
Microsoft's success in the tablet market will be measured by millions of unit shipments. It needs to get units into the hands of users to create momentum, excitement and ultimately innovation in its broader eco-system. At the end of the day it is about the experiences - both consumer and professional - that will determine the success of Microsoft's tablet strategy. Providing a strong product is only part of the story. It will need the commitment, investment and support of its partner community to realize this vision.