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Microsoft Surface Pro: Why One SMB Says No

Microsoft's tablet doesn't suit every SMB. An engineering firm IT leader explains why Microsoft's Surface Pro isn't likely to end up in any of his users' hands.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
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IT pro Ryan Jones thinks Microsoft's Surface Pro is a fine tablet. Nonetheless, his user community won't be carrying the devices on the job any time soon.

Jones, a network administrator at the civil engineering firm Ben Dyer Associates, sees possible value for the Surface Pro in roles such as field sales, consulting and real estate, but he thinks the tablet is unviable in the engineering business. Use cases comprise a big reason: Ben Dyer's engineers -- the overwhelming majority of the company's 60 or so employees -- do much of their work in heavy-duty computer-aided design (CAD) applications. Today's tablets don't cut it for CAD work, according to Jones.

"A CAD user requires a decent system in excess of $900 for a desktop, or $1,500 for a laptop," Jones said via email. "Needless to say the capabilities of the tablet itself are more suitable for basic users, so that will rule out 90% of my office."

For the rest of the team -- mostly project managers (PMs), accountants and administrative staff -- price is a problem. In fact, it might be the problem. At $899 and up, the Surface Pro has to compete with much more affordable setups for the email-and-spreadsheet crowd, especially if there's no real need for mobility. "Realistically a secretary or accountant is going to be at their desk and [they] don't really have any take-home work, so they still have a desktop," Jones said, "leaving only the PMs as suitable candidates for the Surface."

Those PMs aren't getting Surface Pros, at least not in the foreseeable future. The reason is bit of basic math. "I'm now getting a roughly $900 device for a person to send and receive e-mails," Jones said. "Why not just invest in a $350 laptop, upgrade to [a professional edition of Windows], download Open Office and connect to our Exchange server? That's 50% less in costs to have fully functional email/word stations."

[ Learn more about Surface Pro's pros and cons. See Microsoft Surface Pro: 7 Questions To Ask. ]

The less-expensive Surface RT, which starts at $499, stands up better in a cost comparison with the traditional low-end PC system. But Jones, like others who rue the lack of legacy app support and less-robust version of Windows 8, sees RT as unsuitable in most corporate environments. His environment is no exception: "In the office they will need Active Directory, so that's going to rule out the RT," Jones said.

Another strike against the more affordable RT: Apple's iPad. "It's the industry leader and can access everything I would need it for [at] only $400-$500 for the basic units," Jones said. "Once again, far below the $900 required to even open the door with the Surface Pro."

Again, it's not that Jones thinks the Surface tablets are poor products. On the contrary, he tried to make a hypothetical case for outfitting some of Ben Dyer's engineers with a Surface RT for field work.

"Our engineers in charge of water and sewer spend time in the field, take notes and come back to a CAD station. So we could easily equip them with a RT to take notes, then transfer via e-mail or Bluetooth to their computer at work," Jones said. The math still doesn't work. "Why would we want to make two investments? A desktop plus the RT equals the price of a CAD-ready laptop."

Maybe the PC isn't dead just yet. Maybe Jones is just doing what sensible IT pros do: assessing business-specific needs and making decisions accordingly, rather than following trends or vendor pitches. Maybe Microsoft's sales team has some work to do in the engineering industry.

"All in all, these two devices don't have viable options in the engineering fields," Jones said, "other than excessive spending for devices that won't be used to their desired purposes."