IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

Forget the iPad. Surface RT is the new productivity tool.

I never really liked the iPad given the fact that it has limited ability to be productive with. When the Surface RT came out, I thought to give this a try.

The iPad is good for reading emails and websites. But as soon as you create data on it, it is troublesome to bring this into the normal corporate network environment. In the end you are still copying files across, regardless of the fact that you use cloud storage solution such as Drop Box. The problem with IOS is that apps don’t have access to a common file storage and it is not that intuitive to open a file from Drop Box or store an email attachment there.

The early advantage of Apple with its iPad and iPhone makes that Microsoft has an uphill battle to demonstrate that their products can compete or are better. My evaluation is that the Surface RT is a better alternative to the iPad. It still keeps a variety of aspects simple to the user such as the limitation to be able to install apps only via the app store and limitations to fiddle around with the operating system but is open enough to have a file system, provide the classical desktop option and provides you with the full MS Office Suite. In that context, I do belief that the Surface RT, specifically with the new Windows 8.1 release, can change the need of a laptop/iPad combination to a desktop/Surface combination.

Another good reason to move away from the iPhone/iPad is that it does not allow you to specify a reason when you decline a meeting invite. This is rather problematic for the organizer since he does not know whether the person would want to reschedule the meeting or that you do not want to attend full stop. This is a bit of a personal rant, but I find this rather problematic.

Microsoft also provides the Surface Pro, however this is basically an ultrabook with a full OS on it and such with all the supportability issues that come with it. The whole idea is to have something that “just works” and requires little to no support.

Below my evaluation of the Surface RT. You can find many evaluations of the Microsoft Surface RT tablet on the web but I thought it would still be valuable to add my experience to this.

I know this comes across as an advetisement for Microsoft but unfortunately that's the result when you have a positive review of a product. Don't forget that I am still impressed with the way Apple transformed it the industry with the iPhone and iPad.

Dependency on the Microsoft ecosystem.
The system relies on the ecosystem of the MS “hotmail” environment (these days called to but the ecosystems extends to Skydrive and the app store) similarly as iPad’s rely on iTunes. It means you need to have at least one email account and in the email client you cannot really remove this account.

App Store
The key benefit (and also limitation) of the Surface RT is that you can only install apps via the app store. This simplifies this process for the non technical people and should assure that apps “just work”. It means that apps have been reviewed by Microsoft and that you can have a bit more trust in this that it won’t abuse your information and that it won’t spread viruses and other malware on your machine. I belief this is a critical concept for a consumer tool.

Email client
This is a simplified email client. It does all the basic tasks and if linked to Exchange can even do scheduling and showing availability of others. You can add multiple email accounts but it has the limitation that it does not support POP and minimally you need to connect to the account.
With Windows 8.1 you now also get the new desktop version of MS Outlook.

A simplified email calendar. Does all the basic tasks. The primary limitation for business use is that attachments to a meeting invite cannot be accessed. Minimally you need to link up to the account.

People (contacts)
The people tool can link up with Exchange contacts. A modern feature is the integration with Facebook and LinkedIn. Note that this linkage is primarily via the contacts.
Problem with the Facebook and Linkedin integration is that the birthdays of all your contacts are copied to your birthday calendar. You can turn visibility of this off. However if you also use this calendar on your iPhone, this birthday calendar also needs to be turned off otherwise your will constantly be reminded of those birthdays. Further problem is that my experience is that the iPhone regularly turns the birthday calendar back on.

Skydrive is the Drop Box equivalent and lets you synchronise and access documents that you have stored in the cloud via multiple devices. This way you have access on your mobile devices to the documents stored on your desktop computer. Skydrive forms part of the Microsoft ecosystem. The initial Windows version for RT did not allow you to synchronise files to be accessible off-line but this has been resolved in the Windows 8.1 version. You can now pick folders in Skydrive that you want to have accessible off-line.
In contrast to the equivalent on the iPad, Skydrive presents itself as an extension to the file system, the same way as it would do on a desktop computer and therefore files can be accessed in the normal way using the MS Office apps.
This feature was a necessity since the Surface does not have the option for a SIM card and direct access via a 3G/4G network. Having documents off-line will allow you to continue to work on them while travelling and not having access to a WIFI network.
Using Skydrive – or any equivalent for that matter - in a corporate environment of course will require some consideration with respect to company policies and it might not be acceptable for all businesses.

MS Office 
The killer application is MS Office. The Surface RT provides this for free but only intended for private use. If you would want to use this for business as well, you would need to check if this is covered by the corporate licenses.
MS Office is provided via the desktop interface. You can link the apps to the tiled menu but you will see that it switches to the desktop interface. To use the tools effectively, you still need to use a mouse.

Windows 8 still provides the desktop, almost as an “app” to switch to. You will find there MS Office and the standard Windows Explorer to access all local files. What you won’t see is a folder for “Program Files”. It is, as if it does not exists.

MS Outlook 
With Windows 8.1, Outlook has been added as a desktop app. This provides you with all the necessary business functionality and gives you an alternative option to the standard email, calendar and people apps provided. You could consider using Outlook for business and the other apps for private use.

I recently found this app as very useful to write notes during meetings. OneNote synchronizes well with Skydrive and if Skydrive and OneNote are available in the standard business environment, the notes will be immediately available there.
OneNote comes in a desktop version and an app version. The latter has an improved interface for touch and is great to be used in meetings or while on the road.

A MS Lync app is available but I haven’t had the opportunity to work with it. Lync would be great option to attend and drive remote meetings when not at your desk (I would expect Lync in that case to be available via the desktop.) When driving a meeting via voice conferencing only, it is difficult to keep everyone on the same page of a PowerPoint presentation. Presenting on the screen of the attendees via Lync, will keep everyone on the same page. For the rest Lync would be a great tool to use.

Skype is the other communications tool available on the tablet and this one works fine. It gives a bigger picture than on the iPhone.

A Citrix client is available and this can be used to transform the tablet into a desktop. With the USB slot in the device an external keyboard can be connected. A mouse can be connected via Bluetooth and there is the option to connect the device to a large monitor. This way I have been able to work a whole day using the tablet as a desktop when visiting another office. I found the performance was not always optimal but it is unclear what the cause of that was. At time I also found that I clicked on a folder and the system translated that to a double click. Another issues is that when you put the device to sleep it loses its connection but has problems to recover from that. There is no easy way to kill the session and start again.

Some third party SharePoint apps are available however I found that when connecting to the corporate WIFI, due to the availability of IE on the device, you can directly access SharePoint after authenticating yourself. This gives me, when in the office during meetings, access to almost all my documents.

Multiple accounts 
The ability to create multiple accounts allows you to shield the corporate use from the private use. This is even more specifically valuable because many iPads used for corporate purposes are also used by kids at home. A new account with however is required and I think that would mean that if you want to install apps, you need to pay again. I haven’t really looked too much into that, since we also have an iPad.

The device itself is very practical. The Touch or Type Cover keyboards provide protection for the screen and can easily be attached and removed. The Type Cover keyboard is definitely preferred and the weight increase is minimal. I found the Wedge mouse that can be connected via Bluetooth very useful which leaves the USB connection free for other purposes such as a large keyboard in case you want to transform it to a desktop computer. The HDMI connector allows you to connect a large screen or a TV. You can easily connect to the device to a TV to use the device to stream a full HD movie.

Battery life 
With limited use the battery will last up to 2 days. The difference with an iPad is that it continues to run when on standby/sleep and will continue to perform certain tasks.

Multi tasking
IOS is not multi tasking while Windows 8 is. It means that you can switch between apps - while one is downloading data, you can use the other.

Intuitive interface 
The interface has been criticized in the press, though my experience shows that it just as simple as IOS. Actually in my opinion a few items are significant improvements such as switching between running apps. Windows 8 allows swiping from the right, while IOS forces you to use the home button to be pressed twice and then select the other app.

Microsoft has been criticized for the limited apps in the store. However most important productivity tools and apps such as Kindle etc. are available. The only concern that I have are specialized business apps. For example a little while I rolled out a Board Portal where Board members would be able to review board papers. These types of apps can be important and if these are not available, it can be a deal breaker. Often they will have a general Windows application which would mean that the Surface Pro would be the alternative.

Solitaire is available.

Self Support 
The tablet can do more than the iPad which means that people who are so called non-technical might struggle at times.
The benefit of the RT version is that people can only install standard apps from the store and it means they can’t really mess too much up.

Network integration 
The new Windows 8.1 for RT seems to provide the ability to connect to the workplace. This requires more than just a personal evaluation and requires network setup and trials. VPN is given as an option.
For home use you can connect to a home group.

As being a complete new product, the performance out of the box of the Surface RT was originally acceptable but could have been better. I feel that Windows 8.1 has improved this.