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Just days after Apple announced its latest line of products, including the iPad Mini, Microsoft made its own announcement Thursday. It launched its very first hardware product, the Surface tablet, and released three versions of its operating system: Window 8 RT, for tablets with ARM chips including the Surface; Window 8; and Windows 8 Pro for PCs.
To catch up to Apple and Google, it appears that Microsoft has changed its PC-focused strategy for the mobile workforce, but the company hasn't traditionally appealed to the BYOD crowd and consumers, which are the driving forces behind IT departments' decisions.
The older generation has an almost nostalgic feeling about Microsoft, hopeful that the new Surface tablet and Windows 8 will make Microsoft cool again and save it from becoming irrelevant. I'm less certain that Microsoft can have the same effect on my generation and the ones that follow--we who started our careers in the mobile era. We love iPhones, iPads, and Android phones and tablets so much that we expect to use them at work, and we get frustrated by clunky enterprise software.
That's why the major challenge for Microsoft is appealing to the BYOD crowd. Microsoft will have to sell its software and Surface tablet to consumers in such a way that they will demand that IT lets them work on the devices, in the same way the iPad and iPhone forced IT to allow more than just the Blackberry in the work place.
I currently use a company-issued iPhone 4S; a personal iPhone 4 (and I'm waiting on an iPhone 5 to arrive in the mail); my own MacBook Pro; and a work-issued MacBook Pro. As an Apple user, it's hard to get excited about the Microsoft Surface and Windows 8 announcements. But undeniably, they could shake up Apple's lead and Android's growing position in the mobile computing era. But how big is the appetite for Microsoft?
"BYOD is a huge trend, not a flavor of the week," said Bay McLaughlin, former startup and venture evangelist at Apple. "Technology is shifting to consumer in a big way and it's dictating how IT groups must work. Tim Cook cited a staggering statistic that about 94% of the Fortune 500 are currently testing or have deployed iOS in their companies. Apple has years of work laid in front of Microsoft ... so it's not just consumer, it's also partnership with IT departments and hands-on help for testing and deployment."
One of the driving forces of consumerization of IT is the thriving app ecosystem in the Apple App Store. The main complaint about Microsoft's mobile solutions is that the apps can't match those in the Apple store. That is going to be a stumbling block for adoption if Microsoft continues to shift its focus to be consumer centric. For instance, the Surface tablet doesn't even come with the Facebook's app.
Surface with Windows 8, as opposed to the ARM-based Windows RT, can access Apple's iTunes because it can run the iTunes Windows application in desktop mode. But in the new UI, Microsoft is pushing Xbox music, video and games, so it has to hope it can drive users to a new system. At Thursday's announcement Microsoft showed how Surface users with an Xbox console at home can transfer the video they are watching on the tablet to the TV through the Xbox with one touch. Surface users also get free streaming access to 30 million songs on Xbox music. (This, along with Apple's plans to launch an iTunes streaming music service, is bad news for Pandora.)
As for developers, it makes sense to develop for Windows 8. The apps work on the PC, too, and if enterprises adopt Surface or Windows Phone 8, developers will enjoy massive adoption of their app.
At $499, the price of the Surface is also an issue. IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell has complained to various media outlets that the Surface is too expensive. But the price isn't the selling point, it's the features. On the software side of things, businesses would have to upgrade Windows 7 to Windows 8 and it's not clear at this point how many companies are planning on doing that. If you compare the Windows upgrade rate to that of Apple's iOS 6 and Mountain Lion operating systems, Windows is a little bit behind.
The old licensing model is dying, so selling directly to enterprise companies might not work in the long run for Microsoft. How are mobile device management (MDM) software vendors going to adapt to the Windows 8 operating system or the Surface? How will the enterprises react? Only time will tell.
Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service has a chance to sync together the PCs with the mobile phones and tablets. One of the main reasons why consumers like owning MacBook Pros, iPads, and iPhones is that they all sync up together through iCloud, making it easy to connect to each other. Microsoft will have to convince the public that all its new products are reliable and better than what is currently out there. Then again, if the IT guys start buying in on this, and roll out the devices en masse, then employees will have no choice but to use IT-blessed services.
But BYOD seems to be more than the flavor of the day, and shows no signs of subsiding. "I think Microsoft is getting hip to the customization angle that entices consumers to buy with the cover colors and their new commercials, but again, they're years and years behind at this point," said McLaughlin. "It's impossible to cite one thing that Microsoft could tackle and really tip this. They'd have to truly fight a multi-sided war and be good at all of them. This is not really in Microsoft's history, but hey, there's always the chance right?"
It does seem that Microsoft is in a unique position to gain some popularity, however, as corporations try to save money by allowing employees to bring their own devices. Microsoft will have to try much harder to appeal to consumers and get them to proudly bring in a Surface to work instead of an iPad.