Microsoft’s Surface tablet – more than a toy?

At first glance it may appear to be another iPad clone but Microsoft’s Surface actually has much more to offer.

Similar to a Windows 8 desktop PC, you can sweep aside Modern UI to access the traditional desktop. What’s really interesting is that when you get there you’ll find pre-installed versions of Internet Explorer, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. You won’t find Outlook or an alternative email client on the desktop, you’ll need to turn to webmail in the browser or else flick back to the Modern UI mail app.

Power users will face a few limitations with these “Office RT” applications, such as the lack of Visual Basic for Applications for Excel and the lack of support for legacy media formats in PowerPoint. The fact the browser only supports Flash on Microsoft-approved sites is also disconcerting. But overall Office RT should meet the average needs of most people. Everything ties together nicely with Microsoft’s cloud services such as SkyDrive, Exchange and Office 365, which should grab the attention of businesses. You’ll also find Skype and Lync apps for Modern UI in the Windows Store.

It’s worth noting that the Surface initially ships with Office Home & Student 2013 RT. If you read the fine print you’ll find it isn’t licensed for commercial use, but those rights are included in business versions of Office 365 including ProPlus, Small Business Premium, Midsize Business and Enterprise. Other licensing options include Office Standard/Professional Plus 2013 or a Microsoft volume licensing contract. You’ll want to consider your options carefully.

When you take into account the Surface’s Office support, cloud integration, full-sized USB port and optional detachable keyboard, you’ve got the makings of a slick portable productivity tool: A travel companion which lets you knock over some work during the day and then sheds the keyboard to slip into something more comfortable after hours.

But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one.

Because the Surface runs on an ARM mobile processor rather than Intel, it only runs the stripped down Windows RT rather than Windows 8. It might look for all the world like Windows 8, but the big difference with Windows RT is that you can’t install your own desktop applications, whether it is Photoshop for image editing or MYOB for balancing the books. It’s not some artificial restriction enforced by Microsoft just to make life difficult, it’s a limitation of the hardware.

There’s no simple workaround; third-party standard desktop applications just won’t install and run on Windows RT. You can only install Modern UI apps, either from the Windows Store or via enterprise application distribution methods – in other words, your IT department does it.

Depending on what you’re looking for in a productivity tool, the limitations of Windows RT could be a blessing or a curse. The fact you can’t install specialist software and Line of Business applications could be a deal-breaker. You might investigate Remote Desktop and RemoteApp options, or alternatives such as Citrix Receiver. Otherwise you simply might wait for the more expensive Intel-powered Surface Pro running Windows 8 Professional, or else consider a third-party Windows 8 device.

But the fact that staff can’t install any desktop software also reduces the chances of them breaking the Surface. Despite your best efforts to lock down Windows, some staff have an uncanny knack of creating problems when they use work-issued PCs for personal use. Managing this becomes much easier within the confines of the Windows Store and Modern UI, where staff can make the most of iPad-style touchy-feely features while ensuring the tablet is still ready to meet business challenges.

The consistency of Modern UI means you could issue a range of Surface tablets to mobile staff and a handful of Surface Pro tablets to executives or power users. There are many fleet management issues to consider. For example, Windows RT supports Exchange ActiveSync for managing mobile devices but not Active Directory domains for managing access to in-house resources. These may or may not be deal-breakers, depending on your needs.

It’s clear the Surface certainly has the potential to cater for business users, but you’ll want to read the fine print and tread with care.

David Hancock is the founder and managing director of national on-site computer repair and support company, Geeks2U. Founded in 2005 and with a team now over 300 strong, Geeks2U is one of the biggest Australian businesses of its kind.


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