Is Microsoft's Surface Tablet a True Enterprise Alternative to the iPad?
Here at eWEEK, we knew it would happen. Microsoft was going to announce a new tablet June 18, and it would be something that Apple couldn't really compete against. But the Microsoft Surface is much more than just a tablet, and it s much more than just another iPad clone. Microsoft, in what had to be the company's best-kept secret ever, created a game-changing tablet that doesn't so much compete with the other tablets out there, as it has become its own thing.
The Surface, named after a 40-inch screen device designed to be a collaboration tool, is a tablet that runs either Windows 8 RT or Windows 8 Professional. The device is marginally thinner (by 0.1mm) than a New iPad, and marginally heavier (by 24 grams). The device will come with Microsoft Office and will support any software that Windows 8 supports. It will include USB, High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) and DisplayPort, and it will have a 2X MIMO antenna system for improved WiFi. The version running Windows 8 Professional will be slightly larger and heavier, and may not include Office as standard.
But perhaps most important, this device is precision-machined out of magnesium, and has Gorilla Glass 2.0 bonded to the surface. By the looks of it--and that's all we have so far--this reminds one of the build quality of a fine watch. The engineering appears to be impressive indeed. While I could go on and on about the specs of this tablet, what's really more important is whether Microsoft can sell enough of them to make a difference.
One of the critical items that can make a difference is the price. Simply put, Microsoft can't charge more than Apple does for its iPad, or people won't buy it. Regardless of the engineering or the many extras that Microsoft has built into the Surface, the iPad still defines the price of the genre. According to Microsoft General Manager Michael Anguilo, the Surface will cost about the same as an ARM tablet (which, after all, is what it is). A good example of an ARM tablet that seems equivalent is the Motorola Xoom, which retails for $499--exactly the same as the iPad.
Anguilo also noted that the Intel-based Surface will cost about the same as an equivalent Ultrabook. A check of Amazon shows that Intel i5-based Ultrabooks retail for $800 to $900, although there s a fairly broad range, depending on features.
Overall, it seems that Microsoft has priced the Surface to be competitive with the devices that it competes against. But Microsoft has added a lot of features that other tablets don't have, and that Ultrabooks don't have. The Surface tablet has a sophisticated cover that includes keys for typing, either as a touch-sensitive surface or as actual keys, but the cover also has a multi-touch surface, and it has an accelerometer so that it knows when it s being folded away, and turns off its power.
There are hundreds of small touches like this, from perimeter cooling to a built-in stylus, to support for a local-area network (LAN) client and network-based printing. In other words, this is the iPad alternative for the enterprise. Because it runs Windows, it s something the IT department is used to managing, security for Windows is a known quantity, and while the iPad learning curve isn't exactly steep, neither is the learning curve for Windows 8.
What this really means is that the Microsoft Surface, designed by Microsoft hardware engineers to be the ideal tablet for Windows 8, isn't really intended to be an iPad killer. Instead, it s an iPad alternative. The iPad is a device for consuming content, originally designed for consumer use, but adapted to the enterprise. The Surface is designed for creating, as well as consuming content, and is designed to work within the enterprise as well as for consumers.
The differences may seem slight, but they are very real. While the Surface will vie for market share in some parts of their respective shared markets, it s not a direct iPad rival. Instead, the Surface is designed to operate on a different level from the iPad. There will be buyers for the Surface who would never consider an iPad, and buyers for the iPad for whom the Surface is not the answer.
But what will catch the attention of the iPad fanciers is that the Surface is a brilliant piece of industrial design. The Surface was clearly manufactured to very tight tolerances, and it looks it. This is a device that is intended to feel good in your hands, to be as ergonomically perfect as a tablet device can be, and to make both the hardware and software work properly together. Of course, Apple does the same things with the iPad, and that means that we re seeing a form of competition where the race isn t to the bottom as it is in some areas of technology, but rather it s a race to excellence. It will improve the breed on both sides. It s pretty hard to argue with that.