Microsoft Surface: Enterprise Tablet Market Isn't Enough

Windows 8 tablets will need to take off with consumers before CIOs will embrace them. Here's why.
CIOs will give Windows 8 tablets a close look. When I spoke to IT execs for an article on business uses of tablets earlier this year, everyone was interested in what Microsoft would be coming out with. But getting IT interested in buying Microsoft's just announced Surface tablet won't be enough.

InformationWeek's research also shows considerable open-mindedness among IT pros when it comes to Windows 8 tablets and smartphones. In a survey of 452 business tech pros this month, before the Surface announcement, we asked about company plans for Windows 8 smartphone or tablet deployments. One third of respondents fell into what I'd call "ready and waiting"--they're either testing now, planning to deploy as soon as available, deploying within 12 months, or deploying as workers bring Win 8 devices into the enterprise. Sixty percent fell into what I'd call the uncertain category: no timeline, no plans (14%), don't know, or deploying 12 months or more from now.

There's a big opportunity for a work-friendly tablet. iPads just don't work very well with a lot of legacy enterprise software. Citrix Receiver lets you look at data, but you can't really work in it, tech execs say. If Microsoft's Surface tablet makes it easier to provide enterprise app access in the tablet format, that's intriguing to a lot of CIOs. IT shops have a lot of Windows expertise in house; they're light on iOS talent. They'd be interested in replacing laptops for some mobile workers. And they're intrigued by the Metro interface: 45% of survey respondents say Metro makes them more likely to upgrade to Win 8 on tablets; just 7% are less likely.

And that leads to an idea I've seen pop up in several Surface write-ups: that Surface will appeal to the enterprise, but we'll have to wait and see about consumer markets. It's a safe middle ground. But I don't think it's realistic. Surface either succeeds in consumer markets, or it doesn't fly at all.

[ Want more on tablets? Read 9 Powerful Business Uses For Tablet Computers. ]

Even enterprise IT needs some coolness factor. Several of the execs I spoke with for that tablet article described the iPad as the default choice for the project or pilot they had underway. They cited practical reasons, like the iPad's features, familiarity, and development kit. But don't underestimate the iPad cachet. "We're in the fashion industry, and they're what's cool," explained Neil Goodrich, head of IT for Holly Hunt, a high-end home furnishing showroom, about iPads the company was testing for sales, the warehouse, and its prototype shop.

Bill Martin, CIO of the cruise line company Royal Caribbean, put iPads in every stateroom of its most recently renovated cruise ship. Why iPads? "That's what the hotel team wanted," Martin said. But he noted that choice could change over time if viable Windows tablets came into the market and Android tablets gained in popularity and stability.

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CIOs are far from the only voice in picking personal technology for employees. A tablet in a salesperson's hand is part of how a company presents itself, so the sales leadership is going to have a big say.

Now, I do think the cool factor around tablets will fade, and employees won't remain quite as insistent on iPads as the one acceptable tablet. Other companies will narrow the gap, even if the iPad keeps a step or a half step ahead.

But there's another reason Microsoft needs consumer success: viability.

For companies to make a big bet on a tablet deployment, like giving them to all their salespeople, they want to know that device will be around awhile. Now, Apple doesn't provide the kind of long-term product roadmap IT teams are used to getting for enterprise software, server, and PC lines. But for Martin at Royal Caribbean, the lack of a roadmap wasn't a big issue. "It's more around our confidence that the product has a viable life," he said. Apple's iPad has that.

IT execs may not know which iPad features Apple will roll out next, but they know Apple will keep innovating and keep supporting its blockbuster product. With the consumerization of IT, CIOs will be skeptical of any device that's solely dependent on enterprise sales. Microsoft has bailed out on hardware endeavors before--Zune music players, the Kin phone--that didn't take off. (Josh Greenbaum has a good take on the three factors that will make Surface viable.) And Surface is an even riskier proposition than those hardware efforts, since a tablet could alienate Microsoft's longtime hardware partners, including Dell, HP, and Lenovo. Would an enterprise-focused tablet be worth that risk?

Microsoft this week demonstrated a very interesting tablet concept for knowledge workers, but it still has to prove to CIOs it's committed to becoming a large-scale hardware maker. Winning over the consumer is part of winning over the CIO.

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