Although Microsoft’s Surface tablet products are going to struggle — at least initially — in the consumer market, I believe that they are going to prove a hit when it comes to the use of tablets in the enterprise. First, to avoid any misunderstanding, Microsoft is offering two platforms in its Surface tablet line:
- Surface with Windows RT — Microsoft’s first or introductory tablet, running Windows RT — a limited version of the Windows 8 OS designed for ARM-based processors (which are popular for consumer tablets).
- Surface with Windows 8 — a more advanced, professional tablet running the full version of Windows 8 designed for Intel processors. This tablet will be comparable in processing capabilities and features to an ultra-book, but it won’t be available until January 2013.
The main reason I believe Microsoft is going to make a big splash in the corporate tablet market is because it is an enterprise software vendor. It may seem kind of strange to some to talk about Microsoft as an enterprise vendor. But even though you may not think of the company in the same way that you think of IBM, Oracle, or SAP AG as enterprise software players, Microsoft’s database, application development, business productivity offerings, and desktop/notebook OS environments are widely used by many companies. In contrast, the current dominant tablet vendors — Apple and a slew of providers selling Google-Android-based products — can hardly be considered enterprise players. Rather, they offer consumer products that have infiltrated the corporate world.
Don’t get me wrong: the consumerization of IT is definitely real. But in practice, putting consumer technologies to use in the enterprise requires addressing a number of important issues. This is certainly true when it comes to utilizing tablets in corporate environments once you start moving beyond their use for anything besides simple, straightforward applications like email and calendar programs. Such issues include multiplatform support, strict security considerations for accessing corporate applications, the ability to protect sensitive data, and the requirement to be able to work with existing applications and legacy software systems.
Although it remains to be seen to just what degree cross-platform compatibility actually pans out, Microsoft claims that with Windows 8 it can provide platform compatibility across its desktop, tablet and (windows) phone environments. However, this applies only to the Intel-based Surface tablets running the full or Professional version of Windows 8. Still, neither Apple nor the Android vendors can offer such cross-platform support. Obviously, Microsoft is betting that this is going to prove attractive to organizations with lots of experienced Windows developers.
Back in March, I said that Microsoft would tie its mobile capabilities to Office and its other business productivity software. And Microsoft, realizing that Office on a tablet is one of its “aces in the hole” when it comes to appealing to corporate users, has deliberately avoided releasing a version of Office for the iPad (iOS) and Android tablets.
Microsoft’s tablet platform supports Office in several ways. This includes a free version of Office loaded on the Surface RT tablet: Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview. But this version, consisting of touch-enabled Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, is not licensed for commercial use — users must upgrade. Microsoft’s more advanced tablet, Surface with Windows 8, will run standard Office applications. It will also be able to run on some of the same software as on the desktop. This includes new Windows 8 applications as well as older Windows 7 applications.
The ability to run Office should, in particular, make Surface with Windows 8 useful for building mobile applications that can take advantage of other Microsoft software. For example, SQL Server, with its analytic capabilities combined with Office, would be well suited for creating interactive dashboards and other mobile BI applications. Consequently, I think that Surface with Windows 8 is going to appeal considerably to corporate IT because of such capabilities.
Windows 8 has a number of enhanced security features. These include, for example, integrated anti-malware — a small footprint version of Windows Defender. Also featured is a touch-based secure login program, Picture Password, which operates when the user selects a picture by touching or swiping three times. The system then saves these swipes associated with the picture as the user’s password for use for future log-ins by the user.
Additional security features in the professional version of Windows 8 include Bitlocker, a full disk encryption solution, and the Applocker application control system. Applocker allows administrators to define policies for restricting (or allowing) end users from installing or using specific applications on their devices.
But where are the apps? While Google and Apple each offers hundreds of thousands of mobile apps for Android and iOS, respectively, Microsoft can only point to several thousand. However, Microsoft has been very aggressive when it comes to its app market strategy, paying developers thousands of dollars to create apps for its mobile environments. Also, keep in mind that a lot of Microsoft’s tablet efforts are geared toward companies seeking to develop custom mobile apps (i.e., corporate apps that blend proprietary technology and data) so, in some ways, the lack of large numbers of commercially available mobile apps is somewhat muted.
The biggest advantage that Microsoft has is that its software development, office productivity, database, and OS software heavily permeate the corporate world. Consequently, Microsoft has skewed its tablet strategy toward the enterprise. I am not suggesting that the company is giving up on the consumer tablet market. Rather, it appears to be setting itself up to take a long-term approach to grow its influence and position over time. We also can’t forget that Microsoft has a lot of partners that are introducing tablets based on Windows RT and Windows 8, which will further broaden the spread of Microsoft’s mobile technology among consumers and businesses alike.
This is my impression of what I see happening with Microsoft’s tablet strategy. However, I would really like to hear your opinion. In particular, is your organization considering using Microsoft tablets?