While Windows administrators have little use for Microsoft's Surface RT in the enterprise, the upcoming Surface Pro may prove to be a viable alternative to Apple's iPad for companies that rely on tablets.
Microsoft is due to announce general availability of the professional version of its tablet, the Surface Pro, this month. The Surface Pro is built on an Intel Core i5 CPU, and runs Windows 8, unlike the earlier Surface RT, which uses an ARM processor and runs Windows RT.
It's a full-featured, enterprise-ready tablet.
principal analyst, Enderle Group
That means the new Microsoft Surface Pro will run legacy Windows applications, something the Surface RT can't do. Along with other features, such as Windows 8's ability to be managed with group policies and join Active Directory domains, the Surface Pro is a better fit for enterprise IT use, according to users and analysts.
"[The] Surface Pro is Windows 8. The problem with Surface RT is it's not [Windows]," said Jack Gold, president of analyst firm J. Gold Associates, LLC. in Northborough, Mass.
With Windows application support, the Surface Pro may appeal to Windows shops such as Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., which manages hundreds of Windows-based tablets from Fujitsu today. The IT staff hadn't considered Surface RT devices because most of the applications the hospital needs to run on tablets are written for legacy Windows PCs, said Rob McShinsky, a senior systems engineer at the center.
Microsoft Surface RT vs. Surface Pro
Microsoft launched the Surface RT tablet on October 25, the same day it delivered Windows 8. But to compete with more popular tablets, such as the iPad, Microsoft designed the Surface RT around an ARM processor, which is faster, uses less memory, and is miserly when it comes to battery life.
Early on, IT pros made it clear that they wanted a tablet they could manage the same way they do other PCs and notebooks under their purview.
The high Surface Pro price may surprise some, though. It will -- at least initially -- come in two models: a 64 GB version will cost $899, and a 128 GB unit will cost $999. A snap-on touch keyboard will cost an extra $130.
While the purchase price of the Surface Pro might seem high, that's actually only a small part of the overall tablet expense, Gold said.
"IT costs money. The acquisition cost [of the device] is just a small part of it," Gold added.
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McShinsky said the tablets used in his organization are in the range of $1,700 each, while some of the doctors have their own iPads that are not administered by IT. (Part of the cost of the tablets is that the devices are ruggedized, and some also have non-standard screen sizes to suit some of their applications).
It remains unknown, of course, whether the Surface Pro will be more popular than the Surface RT has been. Microsoft claimed last week that it sold 60 million licenses for Windows 8 between the end of October and the end of December, but the company has given no numbers as to how many Surface RT tablets it has sold. Given that the Surface Pro hasn't shipped yet, none of those 60 million licenses can be attributed to the Surface Pro.
Still, many think the Surface Pro may find a niche in corporate environments.
"It will be a slow burn," Gold said. "It will probably take two or three years to become popular," he added.
Will the Microsoft Surface Pro stick?
The question then becomes one of how committed Microsoft really is to building and selling its own tablet devices. More Surface devices are already in planning, of course.
If Microsoft is not going to stick with Surface -- the way it has with the Xbox game console -- and instead abandons the project after initial setbacks -- like it did with the Kin tablet -- it could just be pounding sand down a rat hole.
However, Microsoft may have made the right design decisions for the Surface Pro, one analyst said.
"It's a full-featured, enterprise-ready tablet," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., who tried the Surface Pro for the first time at this month's Consumer Electronics Show. He cited the Surface Pro's ability to run Office 2013 for Windows 8 as a defining feature he feels will attract IT pros.
"They approached it from the PC side, not the tablet side," Enderle added.
Microsoft declined to comment.