Buying tablets for business? The iPad or Windows RT dilemma

Buying tablets for business? The iPad or Windows RT dilemma

Summary: Looking to buy tablets to roll out to your business? Now that Windows RT is off and running, is that a better bet than the iPad...?

TOPICS: Tablets, iPad, Windows

The floodgates are almost open - we can buy Surface tablets running Windows RT today, and very soon we'll be able to buy Windows RT tablets from the other vendors.

Question is - if you're buying them for business, which one do you buy?

Buying for yourself

Let's say you have $600 burning a hole on your pocket and you're desperate to buy a tablet today to take into work, BYOD-style. What do you buy?

I'd love to say to you "buy a Windows RT tablet -- such as Surface", but I can't. You should buy an iPad. It's pretty difficult to be disappointed buying an iPad, especially when you consider quality, reliability, and availability of apps.

We're not going to know about the quality and reliability of Windows RT devices for months. We need actual humans to be using both the Surface device and those from Microsfot partners in order to make a judgement and allow problems to shake out. Similarly with apps, the count is not great at the moment -- 4,326 apps globally is all you get to choose from. And, although it's easy and glib for me to say, most that are there are pretty rubbishy. (Expect a deeper dive into this topic soon.) This will get better, but it's just getting started.

Buying for a business

Oddly though, if you need to buy fifty, a few hundred, or a even several thousand tablets to give to staff, it might make sense to move on Windows RT rather than iPad. Maybe don't sign the PO today, but soon. 

Let's break it down.

Starting with the hardware, there's unlikely to be much difference between the iPad and any of the Windows RT devices. Weight, size, and battery life will all come in roughly parity. (It's not like Apple are actually using magic over there -- they might be good at managing a supply chain, but it's still a 2012-era company building kit with 2012-era technology.) Apple is likely to have an edge on build quality but, well, for most businesses the good ol' Apple sizzle is likely to be a secondary consideration when writing up a business case to drop millions of dollars in cold hard cash on hardware.

I don't think buying Surface devices for business is a good idea. If I were buying hundreds or thousands of units of anything I wouldn't buy it from a vendor with no track record. Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba, et al -- they all know how to deliver working kit and keep it working in the enterprise. Microsoft is totally new to this game.

Personal use of a tablet is very different from business use of an iPad. By far the most common uses of a tablet in business are web browsing and "groupware"-like activities such as email and calendaring. These are served perfectly well by the built-in apps. Safari on the iPad and IE10 on Windows RT are roughly equivalent. The Mail app on iPad is serviceable. The Mail app on Windows RT is OK. It's not as good as the iPad's Mail app, but they're both left wanting compared to "Full Fat Outlook". Calendaring similarly so. For these core tasks, neither iPad or Windows RT has the edge.

So how about off-the-shelf retail apps? This is hard to find data for. One source of data that I've used in the past with clients is a report put out by a mobile device management (MDM) vendor called Zenprise. I must admit - I've had no firsthand experience of their product, but the reports they do from time-to-time gels with the read I see in the field. Their Mobile Device Management Cloud Report - Q2 2012 report contains a section where they list the apps that their customers typically put in their whitelist. (If you're new to MDM this is quite common -- you publish a catalog of apps that IT allow their users to install.)

I'll call out some of the things in this list -- we've got Citrix Receiver (i.e. an app to remote into Citrix-managed desktops), Adobe Reader, Evernote, Dropbox, Skype, Keynote, Pages, RDP client, Numbers, etc. You can obviously go into that report yourself, but what I've done here is picked out apps that either are directly available or have equivalent functionality on both iPad and Windows RT. (There is a beta for Citrix Receiver for Windows RT, for example.)

Office is worth calling out separately. I'm not a believer in using a full office productivity suite on a tablet. People don't do that today, and never had in the 2.5 years the iPad has been on the market. People might prod and poke around in a little productivity app to do some basic stuff, but anything hardcore and they're go and find a desk, a chair, and a "proper computer". Microsoft are really very keen to see you think differently about this and the whole keyboard+Office proposition with Windows 8 and Windows RT is very much at the heart of their message.

But Windows RT does come with Office -- and you'll note that the Zenprise report calls out functionally similar products on iPad, i.e. Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. (There are some complications around the Office licensing on Windows RT, but Mary Jo Foley explains how to move to a commercial-use license.) For what it's worth, I'm still super-sceptical about Office coming to iOS.

So at this point, we're still not seeing a clear winner.

If you are buying tablets for employees to use, chances are that you'd like to get more value from them than a spot of web browsing, email, and the odd Facebook moment. What we're starting to see more and more of is large-scale iPad deployments. This is transforming the iPad into a primary vector for service delivery within the enterprise. Although now, it doesn't have to be all about the iPad - you're starting to get a choice.

If your organisation already sponsors delivery of private, in-house, line of business (LOB) apps on the Microsoft platform - either web apps or desktop apps using things like WPF, Silverlight, or Windows Forms, you should find it easier to extend that capability into delivering on Windows RT than it would be in targeting iPad. This is based on a common-sense understanding that extending current skills, tools, and processes into a new but related area has to be easier than entirely retooling everything and re-skilling everyone. That's a theme that I'm going to keep coming back to over the coming months. But it's not clear cut - it may well be easier, but that doesn't mean it's the correct decision in the long run.

For now, I would say that it's no longer obvious to just run with iPad if you want to push out your own software to a tablet estate that you own and operate. We can now, today, start talking about Windows RT as a credible alternative. Go back even just a month had you have said to me you want to buy a few thousand iPads for a project I would have told you to "go right ahead". Today, for me that's moved to "we need to think about that".

Of course with all this there's still a lot unknown unknowns. There are still plenty of question-marks over Microsoft's own MDM story and not being able to"domain join" in particular. But at least we're off and running now.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets, iPad, Windows

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  • No brainer - its a Surface ( Win RT)

    iPad is a toy, iOS is not a full OS and Win RT is the clear winner in comparision. But for enterprise Surface Pro is the real deal.
    • Pro only

      Agreed. Our organization provides social services on the edge of health care, and we are under HIPAA constraints. The inability to easily encrypt Apple, Android, and RT devices could make losing one (or having it stolen) a violation of federal law, because the finder (thief) would have the keys to the information kingdom.

      We have experimented with iPads in one small department, and have proven the productivity value of mobile computing. Server 2012, full-on Windows 8, and Outlook are going to be required. We will probably provide touch-enabled Ultrabooks rather than tablets so community-based employees can work at home as well as in travel mode. Their cubicle space could be used for client day care services.
      • Welfare recipients aren't "clients"

        The taxpayers paying the bills are your clients and you're doing a terrible job with our money.
        • clients

          Clients are people you serve. Welfare recipients are people that receive services from government or service organizations. Keep your bigotry to yourself.
          • Clients

            First, I don't see how a your comment has anything at all to do with the topic at hand. Also, have you ever considered that they might be working with the disabled, the elderly, or the mentally ill? Also, there are people who do work and still need government assistance. I have heard that this is a common need with Wal-Mart employees.
          • oops

            I think my post is nested wrong. I meant to reply to AnalogJoystick not smithrg
        • Actually,

          the people who receive the social services are the clients. Someday that may include you and the rest of the taxpayers. Social services make the country a safer, more secure place for everyone. Be glad that you are contributing to them.
          • to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson...

            Freedom or Security - You can't have both.
          • And

            You missed the point of what he said.

            Don't worry, a lot of people do.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • True enough

            That's why Somalia and North Pakistan are such great places to live and do business.
          • First of all, it was Ben Franklin, not Jefferson

            Second, that is not what he meant.
          • It's Benjamin Franklin, not Jefferson

            The quote is, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety". Benjamin Franklin said that, not Thomas Jefferson.
          • Yeah man

            I, for one, am glad to contribute my hard-earned money so others - including college students who signed up not because they're poor but because they were encouraged to ("It's easy to sign up if you're a student - why not?") - can buy booze, steaks, lobster, and even get cash back using food stamps (yup, this is actually happening).

            Others are getting multiple, free phones ("Obamaphones") from Carlos Slim, a super-rich man who gets more money from this program.

            If they're the clients, why do I feel like I'm the one getting #($*#??
          • College Students signing up?

            I'm calling BS on that one.

            I was declared ineligible for any government assistance because I'm taking classes.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • .

            Exactly, and buying booze? LOL
          • Oh, also

            Have fun buying booze with a food stamp card that will actively get denied if you try to buy non-food products.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Obamaphones? A bit confused aren't you?

            I'm not sure if you're merely confused, mislead, or simply don't like the current vPresident and want to spread FUD. The 'free phone' for the poor and disabled was started by Ronald Reagan (I'm sure you're a big fan of the senile actor who played the role of 'President) in the 1980s! Another President whom I'm sure you miss, George W Bush, expanded the phone program to cell phones with a maximum 250 minutes per month and no texting.Just try getting a free cell phone and limited minutes multiple times for a single household and you won't get a single one even if you truly needed it and qualified for it because you will have tried to scam the program. And just who is 'Carlos Slim'? Virgin mobile supplies the cell service and Assurance Wireless and Safelink provide the phones. And booze with food stamps, or cash back? You are one sad excuse for an adult if you believe those ridiculous claims that you're spreading here (and probably everywhere else you can, too). You feeling like you're getting (fill in the blank with whatever nasty word you can think of), then you are part of the problem, not the solution! Why don't you go to a right-wing political blog where others of your kind live and you can all sit around and ease each others fear of everything around you and revel in your paranoid little world.
          • Off Topic

            I though we were discussing the merits of windows RT vs the iPad not US goverment medical care policy.
          • Bull

            "(yup, this is actually happening)."

            (Nope, no it is not.)
          • Ignorance

            The ignorance of that last post is staggering. Either that or just plain trolling.