Three reasons why Surface RT disappoints

The release of Windows Surface RT devices for preorder and the resulting confusion generated through a blizzard of blog posts and tweets about many different aspects of the subject has made me think that Microsoft has dropped the ball a little in the battle for hearts and minds in the great Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) debate.

Compared to the clarity that surrounds product launches of Apple, Microsoft’s obvious target for BYOD, or even the simple messaging around Google’s Chromebook device, there does not appear to have been too much precision or joined-up thinking around Surface RT. In reviewing all the commentary that I have read on the topic, I see three major areas where a better job could have been done.

First, launching Surface RT devices in a limited set of markets with artificial barriers in place to stop cross-country purchases is possibly one way to drive excitement because people can’t get hold of a device. On the other hand, it’s also frustrating to find that you can’t buy a Surface – and frustrated purchasers might look elsewhere, especially those in countries (like Ireland) where Microsoft Stores don’t exist and the date when a Surface RT device might become available in a physical retailer is uncertain. In addition, the Surface RT devices are relatively expensive when you consider that the O/S takes up about 10GB of the available storage, meaning that 32GB or 64GB devices are the only really viable devices if you intend to do any work – or store music, videos, or photos – on a Surface.

I guess it could be argued that selling only a limited number of Surface RT devices will make Microsoft’s PC partners slightly less dismayed at Microsoft’s venture into their territory. After all, the Christmas buying season is an enormously important time for PC vendors because it’s a prime opportunity to sell new laptops and ultrabooks to consumers. The success of the iPad and other tablets has taken some of the gloss off PC markets recently and the advent of the Surface makes life just a little harder.

Second, the fact that Windows RT is not Windows 8 seemed to have passed many by. The only applications that run on a Windows RT device are those written for the ARM-equipped platform. That means applications bundled with Windows RT such as the version of Office 2013 Student and Home (now complete and soon to be available for download from Windows Update to replace the Preview version) but not common applications like Adobe PhotoShop. Over time, Microsoft will make applications available through the Windows 8 Marketplace, but this is a sad story when compared to the veritable cornucopia of applications available for the iPad or Android tablets.

And of course, the fact that RT is not Windows means that the techniques used by administrators to manage devices within large companies simply won’t work because the Surface RT devices will ignore Active Directory, domains, policies, and all that kind of stuff. In fact, Surface RT devices will be largely equivalent to an iPad or Android tablet in that ActiveSync might offer the only way that an administrator can exert any influence over the BYOD devices. I think that this is a missed opportunity for Microsoft because it ignores the predominance of Windows infrastructures in use within large companies. If some method had been found to enable Surface RT devices to be “managed”, however loosely (more than ActiveSync, less than group policies), then recommending Surface RT as the natural platform for BYOD devices would be a natural consequence.

Third, the fuss and bother around the licence for the version of Office 2013 bundled with Surface RT is simply a result of Microsoft not figuring out how a simple adjustment to Office licensing would have created a massive competitive advantage for them over their opposition. Office is the de facto standard for desktop applications in large companies. If Microsoft had said “Surface and Office are natural partners” and forgotten about pointing out to all and sundry that the version of Office 2013 that runs on the Surface RT “is only intended for non-commercial purposes”, the messaging and impact would have been so much better.

Sure, Office 2013 RT is a tad incomplete because it lacks Outlook, but even so, the versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that run on the Surface RT are so much better than anything that runs on an iPad, and the files that these applications generate can easily be shared with work colleagues by attaching them to messages sent using the inbuilt Windows 8 Mail application.  Not perfect, but a pretty good start – and the basis of yet another solid advantage to Microsoft in the BYOD battle. And the fact is that seizing this advantage would have been so possible without much cost for Microsoft simply because so many Office licenses are owned by the companies where potential Surface RT purchasers work, which satisfies the legalistic gyrations that seem to be necessary to explain how a Surface RT owner could use Office 2013 for commercial purchasers. Sure, there might have been a small number of Surface RT owners who do not have access to a full Office license, but these could have been overlooked in the drive for BYOD success.

The upshot of this all is that Surface RT is a disappointment. Even if I wanted to spend the large amount of money demanded by Microsoft for a suitable device, I can’t buy a Surface RT because of where I live; I see many issues that companies have to work out if they want to allow people to use the Surface for “real work” and the applications that I’d find useful don’t run on the device. Cue end of interest in purchasing any Windows 8 tablet until the Surface Pro appears and a “real” version of Windows 8 is available. By that time the PC vendors will have launched their own versions of Windows 8 tablets (such as the HP Envy X2) so more choice will be available, which is always a good thing.

Of course, the iPad and its Android counterparts share many of the same disadvantages listed above and have no real answer to the bundled Office 2013 software included with the Surface, but they’re not made by Microsoft. It’s an expectations thing I guess. When it all boils down, the excitement preceding the device simply did not live up to reality.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna


About Tony Redmond

Lead author for the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook and writer about all aspects of the Office 365 ecosystem.
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