Microsoft cuts prices of Surface tablets for back-to-school season, lobbies for more enterprise apps and starts offering devices through resellers.
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Walk into any cafe, airport or university classroom and you're likely to see people toting a variety of devices, from the clunky laptops of yesteryear to the ultrathin computers and tablets found on store shelves today. So far, Microsoft's Surface tablets have been minor players in this diversity. The company hopes to change that by announcing three Surface-focused programs on Monday.
Two the three initiatives target the enterprise. One extends both the Surface Pro and Surface RT to the U.S. business channel and the other encourages software vendors to build business apps for Windows 8's Modern UI. The third program enables schools to purchase Surface RTs for $199 per unit.
The channel rollout could encourage more businesses to give the Surface line a look. Initially, the tablets could be purchased only from Microsoft, though the devices have since become available at big box retailers such as Best Buy. With channel resellers now in the mix, commercial customers will soon be able to buy the tablets with add-ons likely to include extended warranties and data protection.
Ten U.S. firms comprise the initial group of authorized resellers. Microsoft says additional channel partners, based both inside and outside the U.S., will be announced in coming weeks.
The ISV program, called Apps for Surface, provides participating partners with funding and tools to build Modern UI apps that make Windows 8 devices more business-oriented when in tablet mode. Microsoft released a preview version of Windows 8.1 last Wednesday and has been hyping the update's enterprise value for weeks. With Win 8.1 poised to improve the OS's usability, enhanced Modern apps could boost the platform's business profile.
Apps for Surface will be open to a limited number of partners. ISVs that have already signed up include Citrix, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and AirStrip. Monday's announcements were the first time that AirStrip, which makes mobile software for the health care industry, revealed plans for Windows 8.
The price cut follows the availability of discounted Surface models at several recent conferences in which Microsoft has participated. The company also gave away 10,000 Surface RTs at this month's International Society for Technology and Education convention.
In a phone interview, Cyril Belikoff, director of Surface marketing, said it was important that Microsoft announce a Surface RT promotion in time for the back-to-school period. He said the tablet's classroom value would become apparent "once we get [devices] into the hands of educators and students." The discounted models are being offered not only in the United Stated but also throughout Asia and Europe.
Regarding Apps for Surface, Belikoff said Microsoft "wants to make sure [it has] the right apps for both" of Windows 8's interfaces.
Whereas the desktop ecosystem is mature, in other words, workers and developers are still determining the extent to which tablets and touch UIs can be harnessed for productivity. The bigger the enterprise developers that Microsoft can recruit, the more the Modern UI can push limits. The ISV program is technically focused on Surface tablets, but any apps written for Surface will still enhance the larger Win8 landscape.
The channel news, meanwhile, could encourage more enterprises to look at the Surface Pro -- but Microsoft will be feeling pressure not only from the iPad and various Android tablets but also from other Windows 8 devices.
Among early Win8 devices, the Surface Pro's performance and build quality stand out, but its battery life caps out at a relatively weak four hours. Its kickstand, while great for viewing the tablet on a flat surface, is also ergonomically awkward for many scenarios, such as typing on one's lap, with the tablet docked into a keyboard.
The Surface Pro relies on a third-generation Intel processor, but new Win8 tablets with fourth-generation "Haswell" chips are now hitting the market. Devices with the new processors boast significant improvements in battery life. In some cases, they also sport lighter and thinner designs than the Surface Pro, as well as more flexibility for laptop-tablet hybrid use.
Belikoff acknowledged that there is "lots of discussion on chipsets," but stated that Microsoft focuses on "real users spending their own money, and businesses making capital investments." He said these buyers are "focused on the value they get the day they buy" the device.
"We feel good about it," he said of the Surface's line place in the market. "We're not too caught up in the whole chase" around new components.
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