Apple are talking up the iPad Air and are touting an Office-like clone that will run on the iPad. That has to be a way forward and takes the iPad out of the serious toy world into real productivity arena. Like Microsoft or loathe them, they've forced this agenda. I've been saying for the last two years that the lack of productive uses for tablet computers has been the elephant in the boardroom. Sure there's a lot of serious applications for the likes of the iPad and its Android cousins, but until Microsoft launched the Surface earlier this year complete with the ability to run Microsoft Office and to connect to a secure network (for the Pro version anyway), the elephant roamed unchallenged.
But the tablets that Microsoft have launched, along with similar hybrid devices based on Windows 8 by other manufacturers, have changed the game. Although the RT version of the Surface seems to have stalled, it still represents an amazing amount of productivity for very little cost - around the price of a lesser spec iPad, but weighing only about an ounce more. You get the touchy-feely iPad-like environment with the tablet, but also the ability to write novels, update spreadsheets, produce PowerPoint presentations with the magnetic clip-on keyboard. Add SkyDrive with its free 7GB storage and the WiFi connectivity then you have something that is more than the sum of its parts. The weakness is the apps; Windows 8 is playing catch up with iOS and Android, Windows 8 RT is going nowhere fast. Because RT has only the Microsoft store available to access apps and won't run legacy Windows 7 or earlier programs it is struggling to convince.
However the Pro, at admittedly nearly twice the price of the RT, can do all of the above and more. It is heavier, though, and thicker. I've been using one this last week to see how it compares with traditional laptops when out of the office. The jury's out at present, but for those situations where a mix of legacy software and business applications are required, the Pro may be the solution. Connection to a secure intranet seems seamless and the machine is fast in use.
So can Apple catch up with the iPad Air? Well, one area the Surface Pro is struggling is in the weight department - it is relatively heavy in use. Apple have a track record of addressing weight issues. The Pro does have a minimalist approach that Steve Jobs would probably approve of - power button, volume button and one USB port but when used with the new dock it seems to expand nicely. Apple have yet to get over the USB port concept, which may hold them back. The unknown quantity is the Office-like software being suggested. There are a few Office clones around, with Open Office being the best well known. It works reasonably well and produces MS Office compatible files, but I always feel I'm wrestling with it (I use it on a netbook). Apple have an uphill battle to create an Office replacement that works on the iPad and makes users feel it is worth the effort. And good luck with printing - after two years we're still struggling to print from an iPad at home, but I find my Surface RT prints wirelessly without any apparent effort, although I suspect that was part of the 8.1 upgrade as I did struggle before.
So Microsoft have challenged Apple and their responses this week suggest that they have struck home. Apple are getting serious about making the iPad serious. It should also make Microsoft sit up too - Apple are a very capable company with a track recode of delivering - if Microsoft want to keep their lead in this serious tablet arena then they have more work to do. Hopefully by the third iteration of the Surface Pro it will have the weight and thickness of the first generation RT.
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