Microsoft Surface: Straddling Two Worlds

By | Oct 19, 2012

Redmond has announced pricing for the Microsoft Surface hybrid tablet. And it has begun taking preorders ahead of an October 26 launch date. This initial pitch is aimed at consumers. But it has a couple of major implications for the IT community at midsize firms.

On the one hand, the Surface launch could be a live-fire test for the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend. And, ultimately, it could be a test for the whole notion of "consumerization of IT."

But on the other hand, it is not at all clear that BYOD will carry the day. IT departments at midsize firms may end up deciding that company-provided mobile devices are more secure and provide more consistency. And since Surface is a leading candidate for this role, IT managers may want a heads-up on what it is likely to cost.

Priced to Sell?

As Eric Franklin reports at CNET, Microsoft has finally, officially announced the pricing for its much-awaited Microsoft Surface hybrid tablet. The lowest-priced version, at $499, is not quite really a "surface" device, since it comes without the fold-down keyboard that is a key Surface selling point. The minimum price with keyboard included is $599.

Microsoft's prices are thus a lot higher than the basic consumer tablet devices in the Kindle Fire class. But they are significantly lower than the consumer luxury-class full-size iPad.

This initial Surface release covers only versions running the slimmed-down Windows RT version of the Windows 8 operating system. Some IT departments at midsize firms may prefer to wait for Surface versions running full-strength Windows 8.

But popular-priced Windows RT versions of Surface could be appealing to many midsize and smaller businesses--and also to what may be called the quasi-business end of the consumer market. This is the group of consumers who want to do more than just consume content. They want to do work, whether it is writing a novel, managing a personal portfolio, or coordinating a volunteer group.

A Dessert Topping and a Floor Wax?

The dirty little secret of mobility-era consumer devices is that they have become far more strictly consumer-y than the home computer of yore. If all you want to do is watch videos and update your Facebook page, a conventional tablet will do fine. (Or, for that matter, to view PowerPoint presentations or write a short note to a colleague.)

Even on the consumer side, Surface is aimed at users who need a device suited to more sophisticated input. Hence the hybrid concept and the keyboard. Apple, the heart of consumer-centrism, has sneered at the very concept of a hybrid tablet.

Microsoft is challenging Apple's assumption that consumers only want to consume content, not create it. If Microsoft is right, there is a place in the consumer market for devices that can also handle enterprise-strength IT tasks. The future of IT mobility devices--consumer or business-specialized--hangs in the balance.

At the same time, we should not let BYOD hype blind us to the advantages of company-issued tablet devices. They offer IT more security and more control. (And employees may prefer them to giving the boss administrative access to their personal devices.)

Surface is a leading candidate for a future company-issued role. And while consumer pricing is only loosely related to bulk-purchase pricing, Microsoft's announced prices give IT managers at midsize firms a preliminary heads-up on the possible cost range for company-issued Surface tablets.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Follow Rick Robinson on Google+.

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