Microsoft Surface – should Apple be worried?

It has been known for a long time that the new version of Windows 8 would be making its debut on a tablet later this autumn, but few actually knew Microsoft would be taking a similar route to market as Apple and actually creating its own product to do so.

Traditionally Microsoft has relied on 3rd party manufacturers such as Dell, HP, ASUS, etc. to create devices for its operating system – but not this time. Microsoft has proved it has the muscle to deliver a hardware platform with its X-box gaming console so it should not be a surprise, but this may seriously affect its relationship with its traditional partners who have until now provided the hardware platform. But really, will it? Are they going to switch on-mass to Android or is Apple going to allow them to create tablets for IOS?  I don’t think so. Many of them already create tablets in Android and they will not stop doing so; however, they can also now create a Windows version too.

I think the creation of the Microsoft tablet was driven by two goals. Firstly, to create a test hardware platform for them that they could develop Windows 8 on to make sure it really does work; and secondly, to show the manufactures the standard and quality of the product they expect for their operating system to sit on. They know that this is the final throw of the dice in the tablet war and it has to be right, it has to be “aspirational”. Microsoft has set the standard and the manufactures now have to follow.

By creating two versions, Microsoft has cleverly extended the reach of their Windows 8 operating system. At home sitting on the sofa you can use the Windows RT much like an IPAD browsing the internet, doing online banking, listening to music, etc., but it can do more of the things you do in the office as well. Corporate customers can truly begin to switch from the traditional laptop to a single device for both the office and mobile use with the Windows 8 professional version offering the power to be a true single replacement.

When it comes to specification, it is obvious that Microsoft have been doing their homework. The Windows RT is a 1/10th of a mm thinner than the IPAD and sports a larger 10.6 inch against 9.7 for the IPAD3. This means it can support true 16.9 widescreen which the IPAD can’t, which for the movie aficionado might be important. It does, however, due to this larger screen, weigh in at around 20g more. It has Gorilla glass to prevent scratching and comes with a clip on magnetic cover much like the IPAD.  However, unlike the IPAD it also doubles as a full size keyboard which makes it more “laptop” like when in use. To further extend this view it also has a built in stand so the screen can be tilted at a comfortable 22degrees mush like a laptop.

Microsoft have invested heavily in creating their own alloy for the casing and stand to make it light and strong and they say that in future they could reduce the thickness from the current 9.6mm . Other innovations also include a full-size USB2 port which means you can connect it to traditional accessories such as a mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, etc. and this should further extend its flexibility. In terms of memory it matches the industry standard of 32 and 64GB versions with the option to extend with a micro-SD port.

Although the RT is more like a laptop, Microsoft seems to think that a single device would not meet all demands, so they have brought out a 2nd product. This will run the full version of the Windows 8 professional operating system and use the Intel based chipset, unlike the ARM in the RT, but has an increased thickness and is slightly heavier. It does, however, sport a USB 3 port for added speed and flexibility. It also comes with either 64 or 128 Gb of memory, reflecting its more corporate aim point. Of course, running Windows 8, which will be the new single OS for Microsoft, means that it will run all the same programs as the traditional desk/laptop.

The real question is of course how will Windows 8 as the single OS across phones, tablets and PCs fair. Well, having used the pre-release version, I found it stable at least. The new UI will take a little while to get used to, but having used windows mobile 7.5 extensively, which has a similar look and feel, I found it quite intuitive. I am perhaps not the average user though and I think the start button will be missed, although getting used to using the “windows” button on the tablet and keyboard to return to the UI starts to feel more intuitive after a while. I found that all the programs I had loaded in Windows 7 continued to work under windows 8 and if, as I am sure many will, you can go straight from the UI to a traditional desktop and it feels very similar to windows 7, although you will note the absence of the start button on the bottom left. I am not sure how it will work with the tablet but if it works as intuitively as windows 7.5 on the mobile, it should be a winner.

So the $64000 question – is it better than the IPAD? – well, judgement must be reserved until we see its use in anger. The IPAD has been successful for good reasons. It is a quality device that is aspirational and works very well with lovely presentation and finish and IOS has a wide range of applications available for it. This alone makes it a device which everyone wants. If Microsoft can create this aspiration for their product, then they could be in a position to challenge this dominance. The majority of us are familiar with the Microsoft suite of products and use them on a day to day basis, and the ability to transfer these across to the tablet must give them a fighting chance. The Windows PC is the only platform that has more applications available for it than IOS, so this should level this playing field here, too.

In terms of the corporate user, the CIO has really been waiting for a viable competitor to Apple. The IPAD has sneaked in via the CEO/Senior management route without clear thought to its use and implications: they wanted it, so they used it. Unfortunately for IT, the management of the device has always been an issue; it is designed as a consumer device, not corporate , so does not come with the management tools necessary to make sure it fits in with corporate policies. Here with the wealth of corporate products available in the Windows world, perhaps Microsoft might finally have the advantage.

Putting out a tablet with a new OS is a gamble but is one which they needed to do now while they still retain the dominant position in the PC OS space. If they had left it much longer the erosion of their market may have reached a point of no return.  The creation of two versions could also prove to be a master stroke. It has always been difficult to create a “one fits all” device and so they have decided to try. In creating a corporate and consumer version of the same product, they might have just got it right. Only time will tell, but healthy competition can only be good, both for corporate and consumer. If this does not work, the future certainly looks to belong to the Apple!

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David Tuck, Principal Consultant

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