Jack Gold: Microsoft re-Surfaces the Pro, for the enterprise

The enhancements in the Surface Pro 3 are aimed straight at the enterprise

With the launch of the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has rightly decided that its future is not at the low end of consumer tablets, where ultra-thin margins and highly competitive vendors from Asia have dominated and will continue to do so. Instead, it has concentrated on its key strength -- business users. It's counting on them to buy high-performance tablets as extensions and/or replacements for full laptop capability.

This move shows that Microsoft may finally understand that it cannot go head to head with Apple's iPad and must offer a superior business device that leverages its installed base of infrastructure and applications, in particular the full Office suite. Surface Pro 3 is not a general-purpose tablet aimed in no particular direction.

The new Surface has a bigger screen (12 inches). That's large enough to run nearly any business app, as well as allow the full split-screen operation that's so popular with business users. It also includes Intel's fourth-generation Core (Haswell) processor family, with choice of i3, i5 or i7 ULV parts. It runs the full family of Windows apps and services. In short, Microsoft is offering the power of a full-blown laptop in the form of a tablet. This is where its customers have told it to concentrate. To that end, it has succeeded.

I have never been a fan of the Windows RT-based Surface. It's not a full-function device, and not being able to run the full Office suite and many other enterprise apps made it a non-starter for commercial users. Its target audience seemed to be the mass market, which Microsoft just can't win going against the iPad or the many Android contenders. The full Windows version of the original Surface Pro made more sense to me, with its total compatibility with corporate apps and Microsoft productivity tools. The Pro 3 builds on that, with many improvements: a better screen (2K), greater battery life (8 to 9 hours), an innovative kickstand that holds the device at any angle, an active pen to create more control and functionality and that also offers instant access to OneNote without the need to unlock the screen, SSD choices of up to 512GB, and an enhanced attachable keyboard/touchpad.

The Surface Pro 3 is clearly aimed at the high end of the commercial marketplace. Why did Microsoft go this route? It understood when weighing design options that it couldn't compete directly against the iPad. But it can compete on the enterprise turf where Microsoft has long ruled. Yes, there is now an Office version for the iPad, but Apple's popular tablet is a long way from offering full corporate functionality. Directly targeting the high end of the enterprise market with full Windows compatibility across all apps is an area where Microsoft can win -- and it can be successful without selling tens of millions of such a high-end device. Modest sales of 2 to 3 million would still validate the Surface Pro 3 as a viable Windows tablet.

How this could shake out

If successful, the Surface Pro 3 device will stimulate traditional OEMs to offer enterprise-class tablets running full Windows systems and powered by x86 chips. That would give a major boost to Intel (and potentially AMD). But the ARM chip providers (including NVidia and Qualcomm) that had hoped Microsoft's new device would continue to endorse their chips while runnig Windows RT have been disappointed.

Also happy are Windows app developers and providers, which now have a true tablet platform to deploy to without needing a full-blown conversion effort.

Apple could see its incursions into the enterprise curtailed. The many corporate users who have tried to get work done on their iPads and saw Windows tablets as far inferior could now re-evaluate that position, especially if IT groups seek to influence their choice. Also affected could be Microsoft OEMs, which now have a high-end Windows-based tablet to compete against from their OS supplier. But an even bigger loser could be the Surface RT family of devices, since the Surface Pro 3 eliminates any reason for enterprises to look at it and its inferior capabilities. Of course, some users need more compact units than the Surface Pro 3 with its 12-inch screen, but I'd expect Microsoft and its OEMs to offer smaller devices (some already do).

The price is still a bit high for many, at $799 for the entry unit, plus the required $129 attachable keyboard. Nonetheless, I expect the sweet spot for many enterprises will be the $1,299 i5-powered unit with 256GB. That's a high-end device with full capability for corporate users for whom a premium price of a few hundred dollars is far outweighed by the device's productivity-enhancing features.

I believe Microsoft will be successful with the Surface Pro 3 in their targeted market. How will it affect the overall enterprise tablet market? Only time will tell.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an information technology analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

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