Under the Surface

March 19, 2013

The last couple of years have seen a monumental shift in the way people manage and use their business IT. Undoubtedly the Apple iPad has revolutionised the sector, shifting the perception that business communications need to be centred around a hefty desktop or laptop PC to an expectation that a tablet can take on many of the vital and core IT roles. In its wake, the iPad has seen stiff competition from Google Android devices, especially in the consumer space, but for a business alternative many eyes are now on Microsoft’s big hope for moving into the highly portable market – the MS Surface and Windows 8. With a track record of dominating the business IT world for over two decades, Microsoft certainly has the pedigree but how does the Surface and Windows 8 stack up against the iPad as the next potential business IT favourite?

Like many decisions in business, choosing which mobile platform for an organisation is as much about personal preference as it is about statistics on a piece of paper. The iPad for example has won a huge sector of the market by offering people the tools they want in a way that is straight-forward and highly user friendly. So despite the fact that the great majority of business IT has traditionally focussed on the Microsoft Windows platform (and a huge percentage still is) organisations are often obliged to ensure that their IT network infrastructure is able to cope and cater for the massive influx of Apple machines. The ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) phenomenon has seen the line between business devices and staff-owned devices active on the network become blurred. There is a clear opening for Microsoft to offer an alternative that is more closely aligned to its well-entrenched network solutions that power much of the behind-the-scenes technology we all rely upon.

It is no accident that Microsoft has launched the MS Surface and Windows 8 at the same time, but behind the fanfare of a new tablet it is fair to say that Windows 8 is actually the more important of the two products. The real mobile computing power behind the MS Surface is the new version of Windows which brings many of the benefits of a desktop or laptop computer but with the interface and convenience of a tablet device. Windows 8 offers full compatibility with other business systems, it can run Microsoft Office and other important applications such as accountancy stalwart Sage and vitally it can support USB connections (so it will work with a USB stick or other peripheral devices) giving a greater scope for expansion and use of other hardware. Looking at the two alternatives, it is clear that, whilst the iPad is a superb machine, it is foremost a consumer device whereas a device using Windows 8 allows the user to easily produce content rather than just consuming it.

At this juncture, it is worth exploring further the potential gap between the benefits of Windows 8 and how these are actually usable with the MS Surface. Whilst the MS Surface has been heavily marketed with its clip-on keyboard and its ability to use MS Office, neither of these are included as standard in the box. So any user looking to fully utilise these benefits will immediately need to upgrade their purchase which could well come in at over £1,000 – a much higher price bracket than even the best spec iPad. There are other issues with the MS Surface too: the clip-on keyboard is not especially easy to use on your lap (a must for many travelling workers) and MS Office has been designed with a full keyboard and mouse in mind, meaning touchscreen operation can be difficult. The battery life is also likely to be much less than the full day that many iPad users enjoy, limiting its use beyond a good power supply.

However, where Windows 8 does have an edge over the iPad is in the fact that it will be licensed for hardware produced by other vendors who will offer different specifications and pricing, suiting a wider range of budgets. Well respected vendors such as Dell, Lenovo and Samsung will all have Windows 8 tablet devices that will offer the considerable benefits of the platform but at various and most likely very keen price points.

Beyond the technical details and debates over which is the better machine, it is worth remembering at this stage that both devices need to be considered in the context of real-world working. Microsoft is pitching the MS Surface Pro and Windows 8 directly as a business alternative to the iPad and therefore it is helpful to look at the habits of iPad users for more insight into what the market wants. According to a recent survey of iPad users conducted by the sales technology firm Brainshark, the most common business uses for the iPad are checking work e-mails (82%), doing web research (72%), viewing or delivering presentations (74%), and almost half (46%) of respondents said they use iPads for ‘business apps’. The study also showed that 89% of responders take their iPad travelling and one in three take it instead of a laptop. Additionally, whilst 92% say their iPad supplements their laptop, 51% believe, rightly or wrongly, it will become their main computing device within the next two years. What is very clear is that the mobile tablet is already a vital tool for many business users and is likely to become even more essential if the trend continues. Business users are likely to want even more flexibility and performance in the future and Windows 8 promises to cater for this.

So would a MS Surface Pro be the ideal solo IT tool for a typical business user? I would have to say that, in my opinion, the current device has too many limitations in terms of usability and cost, however Windows 8 is offering some very exciting possibilities for the right hardware. Portable Windows 8 devices will be able to offer performance and flexibility akin to the desktop and laptop machines, which many portable devices fail to truly emulate. Apple’s iPad has found its own sweet spot in the market and any questions over connectivity or storage seem to have withered in the face of its ability to offer what many users want in the real world. It will be interesting to see how the market widens when the raft of Windows 8 tablet devices launch. Will they win over iPad users? Or will they simply offer a fresh approach to a new demographic of mobile user, adding to the mix of mobile computing which has gripped the IT sector and looks very likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

Paul Mew is Technical Director at the IT solutions consultancy ramsac: www.ramsac.com