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Microsoft Surface Vs. Dell Venue: Tablet Rivals

Microsoft's Surface tablets gain a bit of momentum, but Microsoft faces new competition from Dell and continuing heat from Apple.
Microsoft faces another major dilemma in addition to increased competition: The market for Surface-like devices might not be very big to begin with. The Surface RT's poor sales testify to this possibility, as does the sluggish adoption of Windows 8 in general. But studies from several industry analysts provide additional evidence.

A Forrester study found two-thirds of information workers are interested in using tablets with keyboards but 80% still prefer to use a smartphone, tablet and keyboard in combination. It also found that many tablet users who prefer keyboards are pairing iPads with third party accessories rather than opting for more keyboard-centric Windows 8 devices. A Gartner study concluded employees prefer iOS to the Modern UI so much that they'll continue to bring iPads to work from home even if their employers issue Windows 8 hybrid devices. Another Forrest survey found far fewer users are interested in Windows 8 tablets than relative to a similar survey conducted last year.

The data suggests users are interested in tablets that can handle more productivity tasks but still see computers and tablets as separate tools. It also suggests Windows 8 hasn't persuaded users that convergence is the way forward, and raises doubts about whether Windows 8.1 adds enough to change their minds.

The news isn't all bad for the Surface line, though. For niche users, the Surface tablets will stand above the crowd; cloud-friendly users might be especially interested, given that Microsoft is bundling free Skype Wi-Fi and SkyDrive storage with the devices, for example. Healthy pre-sales might also indicate pent-up demand for the new models; many who considered the original Surface Pro have no doubt been waiting for the Pro 2 and its dramatic battery life improvements. Also, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said companies are interested in devices such as the Surfaces because they allow IT to manage one device that provides the utility of two.

Microsoft's recent Surface deployments with Delta Airlines and the London School of Business are likewise encouraging, and proof that Surface devices -- even the original Surface RT -- can fit enterprise needs. Microsoft also announced that its "Apps for Surface" program now includes SAP, news that could encourage more developers to consider Windows RT for line-of-business apps.

But these signs aren't convincing. Without knowing how much presale inventory Microsoft made available, it's premature to characterize the preorders as a triumph. Given how poorly the Surface RT sold, constrained supplies could simply mean Microsoft produced fewer units this time.

Similarly, enterprise interest in two-in-one devices might be increasing, but as the Dell Venue Pro 11 demonstrates, the Surface Pro 2 might not be the best value in this category. It also remains to be seen if IT's wishes mesh with those of end users; if employees keep bringing iPads to work after Windows tablets have been deployed, two-in-one strategies won't count for much.

Although Microsoft's deployments are important -- and according to Belikoff, the first batch of many to come -- they've also reinforced concerns. According to AppleInsider, some Delta pilots fought the Surface 2 "electronic flight bag," for example. The pilots reportedly would have preferred to use iPads, the device with which other airlines, such as American, have saved millions through similar programs of their own.

Modern UI apps from SAP are important, but the Modern UI still lags other tablet ecosystems. Forrester analyst David Johnson said "iPads will still keep their edge in usability and availability of mature apps for some time to come."

The new Surfaces are improved in every way, in short, but that doesn't mean Microsoft is out of the woods yet.