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November 30, 2012

Surface with Windows 8 Pro pricing contemplations -- an opportunity for traditional vendors of rugged tablets?

On November 29, 2012, Microsoft revealed, on its Official Microsoft Blog (see here), pricing for its Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablets. The 64GB version will cost US$899 and the 128GB version runs US$999. That includes a pen but neither the touch or the type cover. They cost extra.

So what do we make of that?

Based on my experience with the Surface with Windows RT tablet, I have no doubt that the hardware will be excellent. With a weight of two pounds and a thickness of just over half an inch, the Pro tablet is a bit heavier and thicker than the RT tablet, but still light and slim by Windows tablet standards. The display measures the same 10.6 inches diagonally, but has full 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution compared to the 1366 x 768 pixel of the RT tablet. That's the difference between 1080p and 720p in HDTV speak. There's a USB 3.0 port and a mini DisplayPort jack. Under the hood sits a 3rd Gen Intel Core i5 processor as opposed to the nVidia Tegra 3 ARM chip in the RT model. And both RAM and storage are twice of what the RT tablet has. All that certainly makes for an attractive tablet.

What customers of a Surface with Windows 8 Pro get is a modern and rather high performance tablet that can be used with a pen or a mouse in desktop/legacy mode, and with touch in the new Metro mode with all the live tiles and all. You can use the pen in Metro mode, of course, but Metro wasn't designed for that. And you can use touch in legacy mode, but as 20 years of experience with Windows tablets has shown, legacy Windows does not work well with finger touch. Still, this will most likely be good hardware that makes full Windows available in a tablet, and also allows evaluating Metro in its native mode.

But let's move on to the ever important price. And here Microsoft faced an unenviable task. Microsoft tablets had to be price-competitive with the iPad, and the Surface RT tablets are. Except that so far they have not been accepted as "real" Microsoft tablets because they cannot run legacy Windows software. The Windows 8 Pro tablets are real Windows tablets, but they now cost more than iPads. Sure, they have more memory and ports and a memory card slot and an Intel Core processor, but the perception will still be that they cost more than iPads and are thus expensive. That's somewhat unfair because the i5 processor in the Microsoft tablet alone costs costs more than most consumer Android tablets. But this is an era where you can get an impressive, powerful and full-featured notebook for 500 bucks or so, and a sleek Ultrabook for well under a grand. That makes the tablet look expensive.

Price, in fact, has always been a weak spot with Windows-based tablets. Witness a bit of tablet history: the first pen tablets in the early 1990s cost almost $4,000. Even in an era where notebooks cost much more than what they cost today, that was too much, and it was one of the several reasons why early pen tablets failed in the consumer market. Tablets did remain available in vertical markets throughout the 90s, albeit usually at around $4,000.

In 2001/2002 Microsoft tried again with their Tablet PC initiative. The goal there was to bring the tablet form factor, beloved by Bill Gates himself, to the business and consumer markets. The price was to be lower and to make that possible Microsoft initially mandated the use of inexpensive Transmeta processors. When they turned out to be too slow to drive the WIndows XP Tablet PC Edition at an acceptable clip, everyone turned to Intel and the average 2002-style Tablet PC ran around US$2,000. Which was still too expensive for the consumer market where customers could pick up a regular notebook for less.

Unfortunately, while two grand was too steep for consumers, the side effect was that companies like Fujitsu, Toshiba, and everyone else who had been selling tablets in the 90s now had to offer theirs for half as much as well, losing whatever little profit came from tablet sales in the process. What's happening now is that the Surface for Windows 8 Pro again halves the price people expect to pay for a tablet. And again there may be a situation where the public considers Microsoft's own Windows 8 tablets as too expensive while the verticals have to lower their prices to stay competitive with Microsoft itself.

And that won't be easy. Vertical market vendors have done a remarkable job in making business-class Windows 7 tablets available for starting at around US$1,000 over the past year or so. But those tablets were almost all based on Intel Atom processors which are far less powerful than what Microsoft now offers in their own Windows 8 Pro tablets. So we have a situation where Intel pushed inexpensive Atom processors to make inexpensive tablets possible, but Microsoft itself has now upped the ante for its licensees by offering much more hardware for less.


It's hard to see how this could possibly leave much room for the traditional makers of business-class Windows tablets. Unless, that is, they find a way to compellingly answer the one question we've been hearing ever more loudly over the past couple of years: "we need a tablet like the iPad, but it must run Windows and be a lot more rugged than an iPad." Well, there's the niche. Tablets that match the iPad's style and Microsoft's newly established hardware standard, but a whole lot tougher than either and equipped with whatever special needs business and industrial customers have.

That ought to be possible. The traditional vertical market tablet makers and sellers already know their markets. And unlike the designers of consumer market tablets, they know how to seal and protect their hardware and make it survive in the field and on the job. What that means is that Microsoft's pricing for their Surface tablets may well be a glass half full for the rugged computing industry, and not one half empty.

Anyone for a sleek yet armored ULV Core i5 or i7-powered, IP67-sealed tablet with a 1080p dual-mode and sunlight viewable procap/active pen input display, a 6-foot drop spec, dual cameras with a 4k documentation mode, 4G LTE, and integrated or modular scanner/RFID/MSR options?

Posted by conradb212 at 08:31 PM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2012

Windows RT: how suitable is it for vertical markets? (Part II)

I had planned a quick follow-up on my first impressions of the Microsoft Surface RT tablet and Windows RT in general. But now it's almost a month later, so why the hesitation?

It's not because of Microsoft's hardware. I am as impressed with the Surface RT tablet as I was when I first took it out of its box. It's a truly terrific device. If after a month of use about the only gripe is that you still can't easily find the on-off button, you know the hardware itself is good. So no issues there. It never gets hot or even warms up. Battery life is practically a non-issue, like on the iPad. It's plenty fast enough. Honestly, the argument that for real performance and real work you need an Intel processor is pretty thin. What it really feels like is that Microsoft is in the difficult spot of having to artificially hold ARM hardware back via Windows RT so that it won't compete too much with Intel hardware, but at the same time Microsoft doesn't want to come across as being uncompetitive on ARM platforms. Tough position to be in.

And then there's the whole concept of Windows 8. I really did not want to get into a discussion of operating systems, but Microsoft makes it hard not to. Especially if you've been covering Microsoft's various mobile and pen/touch efforts over the years.

One giant problem is that Microsoft still does not want to let go of the "Windows on every device" maxim. So Windows 8 is on the desktop, on notebooks, on tablets and on phones. With Microsoft claiming it's all the same Windows, though it's really quite unclear to most whether it's really the same Windows or not. So from a practical perspective, what exactly is the advantage of the tile-based "Metro" look on all those very different computing platforms when you really can't run the same software anyway? Yes, the fairly consistent look is probably good for brand identity (as if Microsoft needs more of that), but it's inconvenient for users who have to deal with this one-size-fits-all approach at best.

And there are some other issues.

For example, what's the deal with the "flatness" of everything in Windows 8 and RT? Not long ago everything had to be 3D and layered, and now everything has to be completely flat? There is simply no good argument for that. 3D components on a screen always help making things more manageable and more obvious (let alone better looking), so complete flatness for complete flatness' sake seems weak.

Then there's the peculiarly low density of almost everything I've seen so far in Metro. Maybe that's just because Metro is only getting started, but between the Kansas-like flatness and very little on the screen, it feels strange and empty, and it means a lot of panning left and right.

And by far the biggest beef: why try to shoehorn everything into one operating system? It is very abundantly clear that traditional Windows apps, the kind that hundreds of millions use every day, are simply not for touch operation and may never be. Just because it's simple to touch here and there and use touch to consume information on small media tablets doesn't mean touch is the way to go with the much more complex interactive software most people use for work. Pretty much all of the creative work I do, for example, requires the pinpoint accuracy of a mouse: editing, image processing in Photoshop, layout in Quark Xpress, etc., etc. I cannot see how that can be replaced by just tapping on a screen.

So from that perspective, it does seem like Microsoft has simply done what the company has done every time in the past 20 years when new and disruptive technology came along -- it paid lip service by putting a fashionable layer on top of Windows. That's what happened with Windows for Pen Computing (1992), the Pen Services for Windows 95 and then 98, and the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (2002). Only this time the disruptive technology (tablets) has found widespread enough acceptance to really get Microsoft's attention.

And a couple of personal peeves in Windows RT:

First, I find the live tiles annoying. I find all the constant moving on the screen distracting, and in corporate environments it's certainly a constant distraction, with people getting sidetracked into consuming information. Let me make the decision what I want to do next, rather than have a screen full of tiles vying for my attention like a wall of alive pictures in a Harry Potter movie.

Second, if Metro is indeed Microsoft's interface and operating environment of the future, does that mean we'll have come full circle from having just one app per screen to task switching to, finally, software that allowed as many windows as we wanted, just to get back to task-switching one-thing-at-a-time? That, given the right apps, may be good on small tablets, but it's definitely not the way I'd want to work on the desktop or even on a laptop.

Oh, and a third... if Microsoft is concerned about being so far behind with available apps in its store, it really doesn't show. If they were concerned, why would the store be as ultra-low density as it is, with no way of quickly finding what you really want? The store interface seems minimal beyond a fault.

But on to Windows RT and its suitability for vertical markets. That actually might work, although there are several big ifs.

Windows RT for vertical markets: PRO

Economical hardware -- Judging by the initial Surface RT tablet, ARM-based Windows RT-powered tablets could be a perfect solution for numerous vertical market deployments. They are light, simple, quick, don't heat up, get superior battery life, and they cost less.

No virus/malware -- User don't have to worry about viruses and malware because a) the main focus of the bad guys will remain Windows 8 proper, and all software must come from the Microsoft app store. That could be a big argument for Windows RT.

Device encryption -- There's device level encryption In Windows RT. That can be done in Windows 8 also (via BitLocker and other utilities), but in Windows RT it's in the OS itself.

Custom stores --From what I hear, vertical market vendors will be able to have their own showrooms in the Microsoft store that only users of that vendor's hardware can see. That would/will be a great benefit for both users and vendors.

Microsoft Office -- Microsoft Office comes with Windows RT. I haven't done a feature by feature comparison with "real" Office and there are those who says Office RT is a dumbed-down version of Office. All I can say is that Office RT will meet the needs of a whole lot of users. If it's dumbed down, it's infinitely less dumbed-down than Office on Windows CE and Windows Mobile was. There are, however, some licensing issues as, at least for now, Microsoft considers Office RT not for commercial use.

Legacy and leverage -- Microsoft has always used the leverage argument ("your users and programmers already know Windows, and this will fit right in") , and Windows RT will probably benefit from that as well. It's curious how much of the age-old Windows utilities and apps actually run on Windows RT, and Windows RT will probably fit much more easily into a corporate Windows infrastructure than Android or iOS.

Windows RT for vertical markets: CON

Confusion -- You'll forever have to explain (and wonder) what exactly works and what doesn't work on Windows RT compared to Windows 8. Some may decide it's easier to just use Windows 8 instead.

Still not pure tablet software -- Unlike with Android and the iPad, Windows RT users still have to fall back into desktop mode for Office and perhaps other functionality (settings, configurations, etc.) where touch just doesn't work well and you really need a mouse. You can use any USB mouse with Windows RT, but it's frustrating to never know if you need a mouse on your new tablet or not.

Artificial limitations -- Since Windows RT is not to compete too much with the Wintel side of Windows 8, there are hardware and software limitations to deal with in Windows RT, whether they make sense or not. Users are the victims here.

Vendor predicament -- How is a hardware vendor to make the call on Windows 8 versus Windows RT? Offer both? Make cheaper RT versions? That's exactly the kind of predicament vendors used to have with Windows versus Windows CE (CE lost).

So for now, as far as the suitability of Windows RT for vertical markets goes, I'll have to give an "A" for current Windows RT tablet hardware. It's really excellent, and ARM-based hardware could really be a boon for integrators and vertical market vendors; a "B-" for Windows RT itself, because for now Metro is too limited to be of much use; and a "D" for clarity of concept as it's totally unclear where Microsoft is headed with RT.

Posted by conradb212 at 05:30 PM | Comments (0)