I’ve been using the Surface RT tablet for a week now, and so far I have found a lot to like about it. In many ways, it is a more functional mobile productivity device out of the box than the iPad or other tablets. However, it has a distinct Achilles heel that will render it useless for many: VPN.
The Surface RT has a solid, comfortable feel. The kickstand combined with a touch or type case essentially turn the tablet into an ultrabook of sorts. There’s definitely something to be said for a mobile device that provides an experience consistent with that of Windows 8 on a desktop, and that comes with the familiar Office apps built in.
Microsoft has woven access to cloud-based file storage into Windows 8 and Windows RT using its own SkyDrive service, and Box has taken the initiative to develop its own Windows RT app. Access to cloud data makes it easy to transition from desktop to mobile device without losing productivity. I can start a document at my desk, and pick up where I left off to finish the job while I’m on the go.
Once you reach the point where the document, spreadsheet, presentation, or other file is complete, and you need to connect to a company network to upload or share it, though, things get sticky. For me, the fatal flaw of the Surface RT—or Windows RT as a mobile platform—is that it can’t connect to the VPN network.
Windows RT does have basic VPN capabilities built-in. You can go into the Network and Internet settings of the Control Panel app in Desktop mode and add a VPN connection. Once you create the connection, it appears in the list of networks to connect to if you swipe from the right to open the Charms bar and tap the network settings. The built-in VPN functionality seems limited, though, and is incapable of connecting with the popular Cisco AnyConnect VPN technology.
A Microsoft spokesperson explained that it’s up to Cisco to develop the necessary AnyConnect app for Windows RT. Cisco claims that the Windows 8 SDK does not make APIs available that it requires to do so, though. It’s unclear whether Cisco can, in fact, develop a Windows RT app for AnyConnect, or what the timeline might be if it does so.
The Office apps on the Surface RT are of little use if the resulting files can’t be transferred to where they need to be. Cisco has developed AnyConnect apps for iOS and Android, so the iPad and Android tablets have an advantage over the Surface RT when it comes to connecting to a Cisco AnyConnect VPN.
Keep in mind that even with VPN, there are still some very good reasons to choose a Surface Pro—or other Windows 8 Pro tablet—rather than a Surface RT. However, it seems that the functionality of a Windows 8 Pro device will come at a price. The price, features, and capabilities of a Windows 8 Pro tablet will be more equivalent to those of an ultrabook than of rival tablets, so it’s not valid to compare a Windows 8 Pro tablet against an iPad, or comparable Android tablets.
The lack of VPN connectivity is not the only issue with the Surface RT. If you’re using a Wi-Fi-only Surface RT you might need to use a smartphone or cellular-enabled tablet to connect to the Internet. However, the Surface RT seemed incapable of detecting an iPhone 5 personal hotspot as an available wireless network.
This issue is minor, though, for two reasons. First, you can generally find a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or some other retail establishment offering a free Wi-Fi network every 200 yards or so. Second, I checked with Microsoft and found that this is a known issue that has to do with how the network is named. Windows RT has a problem with wireless network names that have special characters like the apostrophe. Microsoft has a fix coming soon, but in the meantime you can simply rename your hotspot network to something that works.
As a side note, it might be possible to connect to an AnyConnect VPN using the Windows RT VPN tool. However, doing so might require changes to the configuration and security parameters to allow the Windows RT VPN to negotiate the connection. I’m awaiting additional feedback from both Microsoft and Cisco to further clarify the issue and potential solutions or workarounds.
Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.