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Windows Surface RT Tablet: Still Not Ready for the Office

Looking for a workhorse tablet? Here's why the competition still beats the Windows Surface RT.
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Microsoft has been betting big on its Surface RT tablet, a device I wanted to like. But it's not going well.

IDC estimates that Microsoft sold about 900,000 units in the fourth quarter of last year. Yet, from January to March, the company sold only 200,000. Meanwhile, IDC estimates that Apple sold a whopping 19.5 million iPads in the same Q1 period.

In late May, PC management company called Soluto released a report revealing part of the problem: Windows 8. According to a study of about 11,000 users that analyzed well over 300,000 installed apps, only 44 percent of Windows 8 tablet users run a touch app once per day. 

What all of this means: Windows tablet sales are slow and usage is subpar. In its current form anyway, this isn't a workhorse device for business.

The Problems 

The touch app interface, called Metro, is the heart and soul of Windows RT. The tablet does not even run standard desktop apps. And, as I reported in Inc. magazine last year, while you can run the bundled Office apps, they are not licensed for business use. Oops. (Microsoft recently announced it will update Windows 8 to include Outlook, an app that wasn't previously available on the tablets.)

Also, Microsoft is facing a classic market share conundrum. App makers--plenty of whom are start-ups--tend to hedge their bets by choosing the big players like Samsung and Apple. Smart entrepreneurs follow the money trail.

Increasingly, I am seeing new innovative apps designed only for iOS. For every few dozen new iOS and Android apps I come across in my reporting, I hear next to nothing about Windows touch apps. And while the Windows Store boasts some 80,000 apps, you won't find basic crowdpleasers like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

The Verdict

So, is it time for Microsoft to stop betting on the Surface RT? Yes--but I will stop short of suggesting the company should kill the entire Surface line. The great advantage to using a Windows tablet is that I can run desktop apps like Adobe Photoshop, QuickBooks, and Vegas Pro (a video editor). Hopefully, if Microsoft does make a follow-up (presumably called the Surface Plus), it will run the Windows 8.1 OS and provide a way to run touch apps easily.

Meanwhile, the iPad is not quite ready for real productivity work like typing up rich documents, editing them, adding graphics, and collaborating with colleagues. It's getting close, especially if you use Google Docs. The Surface Pro and several other Windows 8 tablet models do provide a good compromise for business users. You put up with the awkward Metro interface in exchange for being able to run apps that use a mouse as the controller.

At the same time, Microsoft knows the future of computing is touch-enabled apps. When I first tested the Surface RT several months ago, it did seem promising. It's speedy and cannot get infected with the same desktop viruses of other Windows 8 devices.

In the end, there may be a place for a Microsoft tablet running an ARM processor someday. But, it's not right now.

Last updated: Jun 11, 2013

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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