The first thing to understand is that Microsoft has developed these tablets entirely in house and plans to bring them to market as Microsoft hardware. These aren’t reference platforms that will be built and distributed by the usual OEMs. Therefore, it is likely that they will reach customers through the same channels as the Microsoft Mouse and LifeCam products, and with a lot of options for where to buy, customers will need a good reason to spend their dollar with you.
So, what will customers want, and how can resellers protect their best interest? Recent history tells us that executives will buy the tablets for personal and business use and expect it to integrate with their internal systems. The good news is that the Intel-based version of Surface runs the full Windows 8 operating system, with all of the standard enterprise management tools that Windows 8 brings and all the ability to run a huge range of software. Sounds perfect, right? The problem is that the expected ship date for this device is 90 days after Windows 8 ships. And it’s unlikely that the executive will wait for three months, and instead will buy the ARM model which is due out around the same time that Windows 8 ships. But the ARM tablet will run Windows RT, which will not neatly fit in with their corporate IT environment.
Windows RT is Microsoft’s plan to compete with Apple IOS and Android tablets. It uses a low power CPU to get long battery life (we hope Microsoft delivers an all-day battery life) from a thin and light tablet. In fact, the Windows RT Surface device is only 9 mm thick — about the same as the lid of my laptop, sexy right? But, it’s not that sexy when you consider that Windows RT cannot take part in Active Directory nor can it run software that hasn’t been written specifically for Windows RT.
It looks like the tool to manage a corporate fleet of Windows RT devices is Windows Intune, which is a cloud based device management product with a subscription pricing model. So, plan ahead and get your technical staff trained up on Intune ahead of demand from the IT teams who will be dealing with a bunch of Windows RT devices. Now is also the time to make sure your developers understand developing Metro applications, since Windows RT will only allow Metro applications to be installed.
The Windows RT tablet will ship with an edition of Office and a mail client that supports ActiveSync, so using it with corporate systems shouldn’t be too hard. One hopes it will also include the document viewer that is in the main Windows 8 preview, so pdf documents and images are viewable without additional software. There is likely to be a lag between the device shipping and hundreds of applications appearing in the application Market, so strong built in applications will be important.
One thing that was noticeably missing from the Surface launch was OEM partners. It looks likely that OEMs won’t be on the podium on launch day, Microsoft may be trying to hold all the parts in the way that Apple does. This play will probably only cover Windows RT since there are plenty of partners who can and have engineered x86 based tablets. I wouldn’t be very surprised to see no OEM Windows RT tablets, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see an ASUS Transformer Prime that is re-engineered and renamed to be a Windows RT device. Either way this does open up the field of tablets and we have interesting times ahead.
Alastair Cooke is a freelance trainer, consultant and blogger specializing in server and desktop virtualization. Known in Australia and New Zealand for the APAC virtualization podcast and regional community events, Cooke was awarded VMware’s vExpert status for his 2010 efforts. Follow him on Twitter @DemitasseNZ.