Microsoft Surface tablet price the least of IT pros' concerns

Money is no issue for IT pros considering the new Microsoft Surface tablet. Its app ecosystem and its productivity value are still major concerns.

If you ask IT pros what they care about most when they choose a tablet (other than the iPad) for the enterprise, you might guess they will say pricing.

You'd guess wrong.

In fact, Microsoft recently disclosed pricing for its ARM-based Surface tablets that puts it on par with Apple's iPad. For many IT pros, it's not enough to drive lasting interest in the device because the true value of the product remains in question.

"Enterprises might buy 10 to 15 [tablets] to kick the tires, but after that it's a different story," said Brian Katz, director of mobile engineering for Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, based in Bridgewater, N.J.

Prices for the Microsoft Surface tablet, which runs Windows RT, will start at $499 for the 32 GB version without the Touch Cover, which is a keyboard/cover hybrid. A 32 GB version that includes the Touch Cover will cost $599. Microsoft also sells a 64 GB model for $699 with a Touch Cover included.

Having Office is a big differentiator favoring the Surface tablet over the iPad, but it's unclear how robust Office will be on Microsoft's tablets, Katz said. Another drawback is that the keyboard cover isn't included in the price of the tablet.

"If you can't use the [Surface] for work, then what's the point?" Katz said. "Do these devices make sense if an organization's iPad program is going well? No. There's nothing about the Surface I've seen that makes me think businesses would prefer it over the tried and tested iPad."

Two versions of the Microsoft Surface tablet -- double the confusion

Another common complaint is that having two versions of the Surface tablet (the RT and the x86-based Pro) could create market confusion for both consumers and enterprise IT shops.

The Surface Pro seems to be the preferred version of the device for IT shops because it can run existing legacy applications in desktop mode, can be managed with Microsoft's Systems Center, can be plugged in to Active Directory, and supports Exchange and ActiveSync via Outlook. "What company today doesn't use Exchange?" said Jack Gold, an IT consultant at J. Gold Associates, based in Ashland, Mass. "So many companies use Outlook because it does stuff that a generic email client can't do, like setting up a meeting. What good is the Surface RT if you can't use Outlook on it?"

Microsoft has not said whether the Surface RT has those capabilities, or whether its application ecosystem will be competitive with the abundance of apps that exist for iOS and Android devices.

Plus, the operating system, Office and a few other apps come pre-installed in the 32 GB version of the Surface tablet. That means users will have only approximately 20 GB of usable hard-drive space. In comparison, the iPad typically uses just 2 GB of hard drive space for the OS and several apps.

Further, pricing hasn't been revealed for the Surface Pro, which will be priced comparably to ultrabooks and won't be available for another three months, according to Microsoft.

One IT manager said he thinks he will steer his end users to the Surface Pro if they are looking for full functionality on a device.

"The confusing thing is that both OSes are basically the same" said Scott Ladewig, a network and operations manager at Washington University in St. Louis. "There's danger because they look the same, act the same, but aren't the same. If I give up having legacy apps by using RT, what am I gaining with app availability and battery life?"

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Though the Surface Pro will be more enterprise-ready out of the box, it's probably too costly for users who buy their own devices, Ladewig said. Even though he said he is excited to test out the device and believes a Surface tablet would plug into the university's Microsoft environment more seamlessly than other tablets, he wonders whether end users would choose it, given their other tablet options. Google and both provide clear reasons for an end user to choose a Nexus tablet or Kindle Fire as an alternative to the iPad.

Beyond the price, Microsoft hasn't demonstrated to IT departments any management or support advantages for its tablet, or what apps are available, Gold said.

"There are going to be a number of companies that will look seriously at Windows-based tablets because they have the infrastructure in place and they've been managing PCs forever," Gold said. "But a lower price doesn't do any good if the tool doesn't meet your need."

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