When Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablet earlier this year, it looked impressive, but left us with few details. This week, Microsoft invited a select group of tech writers for a closer look behind the curtain, and began taking pre-orders for the device that will be available as of October 26. As anxious as some are to get a hold of the new Windows RT tablet, though, there are a few good reasons businesses might think twice.
At face value, a Windows-based device engineered by Microsoft would seem to be a slam dunk for businesses considering tablets. However, Windows RT is a different animal than Windows 8. It relies strictly on the Modern (formerly known as “Metro”) UI with its colorful tiles, and it can only use apps acquired from the Windows Store.
In both hardware and software, the Surface RT is a bit closer to rival tablet platforms like iOS and Android, and a bit less like the traditional Windows operating system. Still, it comes with Office apps pre-installed, and it could still be a viable mobile productivity tool for businesses.
There are three serious caveats to consider, though.
1. Not for Commercial Use
Paul Thurrott, a prominent expert on Windows, pointed out that the license for Office 2013 Home & Student 2013 RT allows only for non-commercial use—just like the PC version. That means that even though the Surface RT tablet comes with the Office apps pre-installed, the tablet can’t actually be used for business productivity out of the box.
Thurrott explains in a separate post that it isn’t entirely true that the Office 2013 Home & Student 2013 RT apps can’t be used for business. Microsoft has clarified that customers simply need to buy the standard Office 2013 license, and that allows them to also legally use the Office RT apps for commercial use.
That is a workaround, but basically means the Office RT apps that come pre-installed can only be used for business productivity if you also subscribe to Office 365, or invest additional money to buy the full PC version as well.
2. No Outlook
Another problem with the Surface RT when it comes to business use is that the Microsoft Office tool that is probably the most widely used of the entire suite is absent from the RT apps—Outlook. Many companies rely on Microsoft Outlook for email, calendar, and contacts, and the integration with Microsoft Exchange helps IT admins manage it all.
The Mail, People, and Calendar apps in Windows RT perform similar functions. These apps can integrate with Exchange using Exchange ActiveSync, but lack the consistent look and feel of Outlook that users are accustomed to, and fall short of delivering all of the capabilities users expect from Outlook.
3. Can’t Join a Domain
Another issue that might deter some businesses is the fact that Windows RT can’t join a traditional Windows network domain. Granted, neither can iOS or Android tablets, so this isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering deal breaker as far as tablets go.
There are two things to consider, though, when it comes to the ability of a business to manage its tablets. First, is to consider the options available. There are many mobile device management (MDM) platform options that can provide some control over iOS and Android, and Apple has made significant strides over the years to make iOS more manageable through Exchange ActiveSync. Windows RT probably has similar capabilities available through Exchange ActiveSync.
The other option is to hold out for Windows 8 Pro tablets. Windows 8 Pro tablets have standard Intel or AMD processors like those in desktops and laptops, and they’re capable of running the full Windows 8 operating system. That means they can use all of the same software, and connect to a domain to be managed through Active Directory and Group Policy just like any other Windows 8 PC.
The caveat here is that Windows 8 Pro tablets will most likely cost significantly more than the Surface RT, so you sort of get what you pay for.
Overall, the Surface RT still seems like it has potential. But, businesses that are chomping at the bit to get their hands on one should be aware of these “limitations” before investing in the new tablet.
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.