Buying tablets for business? The iPad or Windows RT dilemma

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...?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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.

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