While the soon to be released Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) Surface Pro is clearly aimed at taking the business world back into the Windows fold, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) is not conceding the high ground without a fight. Our friends in Cupertino recently announced that they are releasing a new 128 GB version of the popular iPad tablet, and from the tenor of the press release, the business world is a significant target of the strategy. When juxtaposed against ongoing criticism of the limited storage capacity that the Surface Pro will actually offer, the Apple move seems like a master stroke. Ultimately, however, if the Surface Pro can deliver on some of its central promises, it has the potential to replace your laptop and your iPad.
A bigger, better mousetrap
Apple's senior VP of worldwide marketing Philip Schiller said of the larger capacity iPad: "With twice the storage capacity and an unparalleled selection of over 300,000 native iPad apps, enterprises, educators and artists have even more reasons to use iPad for all their business and personal needs." The release goes on to quote users from a variety of industries that reference both the versatility of the iPad in a business environment and the benefits of greater capacity. While I think the PR department is masterful in its rendering of copy, the story misses the point: a bigger iPad is still an iPad.
While each of the professionals quoted in the release refer to specific software that has been developed for such pursuits as mixing music, manipulating architectural plans, or reviewing football game film, I still contend that the device is primarily a consumption tool. Each of these specialized uses is possible after a developer makes the effort to tailor an app to the specific needs of the task at hand, but none is innately a part of the iPad. "That's the whole point," the critics of this view will say, but the productive nature of a laptop is far less targeted or over-specialized.
I think it is worth noting the quote referring to the AutoCAD app does not discuss creation: features of the device provide "a real advantage for iPad users to view, edit and share their AutoCAD data." Is this a subtle distinction? Certainly, but with as much creative capacity as computers facilitate, the distinction is critical.
Does size matter?
A significant constraint that exists in both the Surface RT and the Surface Pro is the amount of space taken up once the OS and first-level programs are installed on the device. As fellow Fool Evan Niu points out, the difference between what is advertised and what is available after the install is dramatic -- a 64 GB device is left with just 23 GB of usable storage space after Windows 8 and other programs are loaded. While that capacity is fairly significant if we are referring to documents and spreadsheets, multimedia files can fill the space quickly.
Microsoft's "Band-Aid" solution is to utilize the 3.0 USB port to expand the devices capacity. While this is an admittedly frustrating exercise, particularly for a device with an $899 price tag, the iPad is not expandable at all. With as cheap as flash memory has become, the ability to swap data sets easily through the use of flash drives seems more appealing than a greater starting capacity that is permanently fixed.
If we take the capacity argument to its logical conclusion, as more data storage heads to the cloud, internal storage capacity, particularly for enterprises uses, seems fairly irrelevant. While there are certainly times when you cannot access the cloud, the 23 GB of space that remains free should address this need. I do not mean to completely minimize the issue, but I do not think it precludes the Surface Pro from being a legitimate replacement for other devices.
The enterprise advantage
Perhaps the biggest advantage that the Surface Pro has is that it is capable of running legacy Windows and Office applications. While Apple makes much of the fact that most Fortune 500 companies are currently deploying or testing the iPad, and 85% of the Global 500 are, it is not the plug-and-play solution that the Microsoft devices promise to be. Where many companies, like those quoted in the press release, may be able to deploy an iPad for business purposes, any company using Windows and Office should be able to hand an employee a Surface Pro and, with almost no training, expect him or her to be able to utilize company resources in a mobile capacity.
Furthermore, files created on the Surface Pro will easily integrate back onto company servers, making the new devices a nearly seamless addition. While it is ultimately too soon to call the Microsoft offering an iPad killer, if the devices are quickly adopted by businesses, the entire landscape of mobile computing may change. For this reason and others, I am a buyer of Microsoft ahead of the Feb. 9 release.
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