Surface Pro arrives, but are businesses any closer to being ready for tablets?

Summary:Business has always had a love-hate relationship with the slate – so will anything be different for Microsoft's next assault on the market?

The (eventual) arrival of Surface Pro in more markets should answer a pretty fundamental question — and one  whose answer will have a huge impact on Microsoft's future : do businesses really want tablets?

Microsoft spent two decades trying to build tablets for business and failed. It then had to suffer the agony of seeing Apple come along and swallow the market in one gulp, pretty much breaking the PC market as it did so.

How Apple made that breakthrough was by realising that tablets are really consumer and consumption devices. Apple put very little effort into selling iPads to business and yet,  to bring us full circle, one consequence of the huge success of the iPad has been the gradual infiltration of the device into the enterprise too, usually without the knowledge or sanction of the IT department.

In response, Microsoft has developed the Surface Pro — at least in part — to help head off any threat to Microsoft's business desktop dominance .

If the IT department was asked to invent a tablet, it would come up with something very similar to the Surface Pro: a tablet with a keyboard, pen, Windows and Microsoft Office. That is, a tablet PC.

As such, the Surface Pro should be the real breakthrough tablet for the enterprise — the tipping point that switches the slate from executive toy to genuine business tool.

And yet, while the Surface Pro makes a lot of sense to the IT department, tech execs don't make (all) the buying decisions any more. Thanks to the consumerisation of IT, the choice of what device to use in the office may well be made by the end user, and will increasingly be so in future. And most end users, when it comes to tablets, have been buying iPads.

Yet, perhaps the bigger question is not who will take the business tablet market, but whether there is much of one to speak of.

It's easy to argue that touchscreens and tablets could lead to the most profound changes to the way the office works for a generation . And, while it's clear (thanks to the BYOD phenomenon) that some staff are enthusiasts, I wonder whether the general attitude to slates is one of resistance or apathy.

For the enterprise, the question remains whether there are genuine reasons for opting for tablets beyond the fact that they look pretty in sales meetings, while the qualities that make tablets a hit for consumers are less relevant to business.

What's unclear to me is how big the market for Windows tablets in business will be from now on, especially considering how may iPads are already in place, and whether there is much pent-up demand that hasn't been satisfied by Apple already.

Of course, it could be that many businesses will end up buying Surface Pro as a rearguard action against the infiltration of the iPad in their organisation. Perhaps in this one thing, at least, the interests of the CIO and of Microsoft are aligned.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Microsoft Surface, Tablets

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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