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debuted a 128-GB iPad in the morning, ostensibly in response to the imminent release of Microsoft's Surface Pro, which will go on sale in 64-GB and 128-GB varieties on Feb. 9. Within hours, Apple's evident intent to compete on storage took a turn, as, almost on cue, reports began circulating that Windows 8 will occupy 45 GB on the Surface Pro's drive, leaving the device's usable storage capacity far short of advertised specs.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has had to deal with this sort of negative press. A lawsuit was filed late last year, for example, when a customer found that the company's 32-GB Surface RT tablet offered only 16 GB of usable space. In the most recent case, Microsoft representatives have been quick to point out that additional memory can easily be added via Surface Pro's microSDXC card slot and USB 3.0 port, and that SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service, provides additional options.
From a certain vantage, the 128-GB iPad is actually more limiting; though iOS occupies only a little more than 3% of the device's capacity, users who fill the onboard solid-state drive (SSD) will be forced to delete content, offload files to the cloud or perhaps even purchase a new device. Still, if storage concerns are plaguing iPads, sales certainly haven't indicated as much. Despite taking heat from investors, Apple sold a record 23 million of the devices last quarter. That volume far outpaces the sub-1 million tally Microsoft achieved with Surface RT, a number that was less than half what it had hoped.
[ What about Microsoft's new productivity suite? Is it worth it? See MS Office 2013 Upgrade: 4 Points to Consider. ]
It would be overly simplistic, of course, to reduce Tuesday's news to an iPad-versus-Surface debate. Storage is only one of many features differentiating the two options, and the tablet game has filled out with competing models from Samsung and others. Even so, the Windows 8 footprint -- which leaves a relatively healthy 83 GB free on the $999 128-GB Surface Pro model but accounts for around 70% of capacity on the $899 64-GB version -- speaks to the many unknowns confronting tablet and PC makers as they vie for position in an increasingly saturated BYOD market.
Will prospective Surface Pro buyers be dissuaded by the storage concerns? Will enterprise users be compelled by the iPad's superior, and less expensive, out-of-box capacity, or will they prefer Surface Pro's ability to run Windows 8 Pro? Are users ready to begin harnessing the cloud en masse? With non-Microsoft devices now common in business environments, is Surface Pro's ability to tie into legacy management tools meaningful? Are both the iPad and Surface Pro poised to lose ground to cheaper options?
The answers to these questions could vary from one user to the next. Microsoft met with hundreds of business customers while designing Surface Pro, which will ship in an initial volume of 1 million units. Many features, such as the tablet's included stylus and IT-friendly hooks, are a result of this enterprise emphasis. But users will still have to buy a costly external keyboard separately, and it's unclear, given slow Ultrabook sales, whether a full-blown Windows 8 experience will appeal to more than a niche of power users. Enterprise-minded features are attractive, no doubt, but in the BYOD age, consumer-minded features count for a lot too.
There are clearly markets for both the iPad and the Surface Pro, and Microsoft's newest offering will likely inspire loyalty among those with specific needs. But the device is as much about growing an ecosystem as it is about hardware, and it's unclear how much Surface Pro buyers will help Redmond in this regard. Some analysts have not only praised the high margins Apple will enjoy with the 128 GB iPad model but also predicted that the device will avoid cannibalizing sales of the less expensive options. It remains to be seen how widely Surface Pro will revitalize Windows 8, promote services such as SkyDrive, and avoid cutting into Ultrabook sales.
In an email, ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr echoed questions about whether Surface Pro can become a widely used BYOD favorite. He observed that some of the Surface Pro buzz has reflected IT desires more than consumer decision-making but noted that Microsoft will have to compete with Windows 8 OEMs that arguably "have distribution and sales channels best-suited for reaching enterprise audiences," leaving Redmond to take "more of a consumer angle with retail."
"The question remains if BYOD will take hold for tablets and if consumers will buy Windows 8 Pro-based tablets in anticipation of using them in the workplace," Orr wrote.
As for the storage question, Orr said larger memory options "make sense" for enterprise tablets but are less important for consumer apps. He said ABI expects more tablets to migrate toward 128-GB offerings in the near future.
On the topic of Surface Pro, Orr wrote that Microsoft could risk misrepresenting the product if it doesn't refine its messaging around both storage and the user experience in general. "The story of, 'It's Windows. Everybody has it and loves it' just doesn't float anymore," he asserted. "The market has evolved and is willing to adapt to other methods."