Is Surface Microsoft's last-gasp pitch to keep IT shops Windows-only?

Forget consumers. Forget partners. Forget ISVs and the channel. When Microsoft top-dog Steve Ballmer walked on stage last week to introduce the company's Surface "tablets," he really spoke to one audience only: Windows-centric enterprise IT.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor on

It was a back-to-the-future moment last week at the Surface for Windows 8 introduction. Ballmer and company pitched a retro Microsoft IT dream straight from the from the 1990s: A heterogenous technology shop with Microsoft running on both server and client sides, on all form factors, from the data center to the holstered Windows phone. Surface and Windows 8's mobility APIs will offer IT management the chance to support a well-understood mobile platform, without contamination from Macintosh laptops, Apple iOS tablets and smartphones, and various flavors of Unix.

I was struck at the way Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, at the introduction talked about connecting a Surface for Windows 8 Professional machine with a dock and external monitor — just the way most current Windows notebook users interact with their machines nowadays.

The apps that I’d be showing you, they look really great in the native resolution of the screen, the 1080 resolution. But if you want to unlock the highest possible resolutions that Ivy Bridge supports. Even higher resolutions that are possible on via HDMI out. We have DisplayPort. So now with DisplayPort, I can take this PC. I can docket and I basically have a full professional workstation with the power of a desktop PC.

I have one here that’s plugged in and synced up to the show monitor and this kind of a PC is powerful enough to run big applications. Applications like Photoshop, Autodesk, Solidworks, enterprise applications that require a TPM chip. In this case, I’m going to copy some higher-res photos on to the PC and edit them in Adobe’s Lightroom. So on copying on to the desktop and what you’ll see here, this is the five-second copy. That’s a whole gigabyte. That’s a whole gigabyte of pictures. They just copied in five seconds.

It's interesting that Microsoft talked about content-creation applications, software categories that are usually thought of by PC users as Mac strengths. The message here is that you really don't need a Mac, Surface Pro will be enough for anyone, even a Mac lover.

For more than five years, IT organizations have been fighting the wave of "consumerization" in the enterprise. This is the arrival of iPhones, iPads, Android devices and MacBooks that are being used by clients in the enterprise in contradiction of policy. Instead of directing information technology, the IT label in many organizations is called an "inhibitor of technology."

After speaking to a number of analysts about the trend at the 2007 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, I wrote a post about this fear and loathing in IT shops, which was then just getting going. Van Baker, then a Gartner vice president, said keeping out such personal technology would be difficult, especially since they were coming in from all levels of a business.

"People are going to bring these things in, and IT is going to have to figure out how to deal with them. Especially when its a C-level exec who brings the thing in, who thinks its cool and wants to read his e-mail — IT will have to figure out how to make it work," Baker said.

He added that IT objected to Windows when it first arrived.

"Now, if we look at the list of technologies that IT has successfully stopped from coming into the enterprise — which has absolutely nothing on it — you realize this is a losing battle. You can't stop this stuff from coming in," he said.

That was 5 years ago. More recently, Forrester Research put out a fall 2011 report about Macintosh in the enterprise by David Johnson, titled: People Are Bringing Macs To Work — It’s Time To Repeal Prohibition: An Empowered, Laissez-Faire Approach Will Forestall Insurrection. Johnson described the increasing penetration of Macintosh in large and mid-size businesses, and how tension over consumerization is increasing between clients and IT professionals.

There is a correlation between innovative, productive company performance and personal freedom for personal computing choices. Savvy I&O pros should work to find ways to enable Macs for other high performers who wield influence. Those continuing to force prohibition risk being labeled as irrelevant at best and are holding back the competitive potential of the company’s employees.

Holding back innovations doesn't sound like a good place to be. But no doubt, some IT managers will believe that Surface may provide the key to turning back the clock. Surface appears to have enough of a tablet in it for the IT organization to be able to tell users wanting a mobile client — make that an iPad — that they can make do with Surface. And it's enough of a laptop that users can be put off buying a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

So they believe. So Steve Ballmer hopes.

By announcing the devices well in advance, Microsoft hopes to stop the market for the iPad and MacBook in the enterprise market. Many reports expect the Surface Pro to ship in the first quarter of 2013. My experience with such hardware and software releases as well as Microsoft's own history of promises and schedules lead me to expect a ship date perhaps a year from now. Or more.

Perhaps Microsoft's stalling strategy is working even now as evidenced in some press reports. I noted many reports described Surface in the present tense, as if there were models to buy, or about to enter the market. But there is no there there with Surface. Despite the "hands-on" reports, I understand no reporter at the release event was allowed to work with or even play with a Surface device. Touch, maybe.

ZDNet's Mobile News blogger James Kendrick points out that while he was impressed by the Surface event, Microsoft was being overly protective of the new platform.

It’s understandable that Microsoft is being careful with the impressions these early version tablets give the public. The approach is standard for not-yet-released hardware for some companies. The problem with that approach is it doesn’t speak very highly of what Microsoft feels about this new ground-breaking hardware.

At Marketing Land, editor Danny Sullivan described in hilarious detail how Microsoft minders prevented him from checking hardware details and chided him on the effort.

After asking repeatedly if I could hold one — I felt like a seven-year-old, “please can I hold it, please can I try, would you mind if I try” — one of the Microsoft guys gave me a shot. I brought up the Start screen by hitting the Windows button on the front of the tablet, hit Desktop to get to the Windows 8 desktop, did a long press guessing that would bring up the Screen Resolution setting and it did — at which point, the unit was literally jerked out of my hands.

Oh dear. Did I mention having a Windows Phone? Maybe I should have waved it around more. Anyway, I don’t think Microsoft guy number one quite knew what I was doing (you know, trying to actually use the damn computer the way I’d use a computer), so Microsoft guy number two didn’t catch on that by no means should I be allowed to hold one of these devices again. After more begging — “please can I hold it please please please can I hold it” — I got another maybe 10 seconds to repeat what I did before. That got the unit jerked away again, with a “Nice trick” remark.

There's nothing like hands-on experience, but Sullivan says there was none. And the thin, keyboard technology of the Surface units was also unavailable for examination, Sullivan continued.

To me, putting a unit in your lap and pretend typing on it isn’t hands-on. Especially with this keyboard, that tells you nothing. I pretend typed on it myself at two different stations. That didn’t give me any sense of how typing on it really works, any more than playing pretend airplane when I was a kid actually let me fly through the sky.

Listen, the biggest issue for IT in 2012 and over the next few years will be mobile device management. And that ain't about Surface.



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