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The news adds to recent momentum for Microsoft's maligned tablets, including several major enterprise and institutional deployments and increased developer support for Windows 8's Modern UI. Still, Microsoft's refreshed slates could struggle to stand out in the crowded field. Competition will include not only familiar foes such as Apple's iPad, but also other Windows tablets, including Dell's just-announced Venue Pro line.
Forrester analyst David Johnson said in an email that whereas Microsoft is still finding its identity as a device maker, partners such as Dell and HP are now "getting their supply chains for tablets ironed out." The result, he said, is thinner, lighter, and higher-quality Windows tablets that should be more attractive than earlier models.
Johnson said Dell's Venue models in particular are "compelling at first blush" and that he doesn't see Microsoft's Surface line gaining significant ground amid so much competition.
[ Trying to integrate tablets into your workforce? Read The Good And Bad Of Tablets At Work. ]
The Venue 11 Pro delivers many of the Surface Pro 2's features without the Pro 2's high $899 base price. Dell's tablet offers a 10.6-inch 1080p screen, slightly bigger than the Pro 2's equally high-resolution display; up to 8 GB of RAM, same as the Surface Pro 2's top configurations; and up to 256 GB of SSD storage, not quite as big as the 512 GB drive found in Microsoft's highest-end model.
Venue 11 Pro buyers can choose either Intel's new "Bay Trail" Atom chip or one of Intel's most powerful fourth-generation "Haswell" chips, a version of which also powers the Surface Pro 2. The Venue 11 Pro also supports most of the same accessories as the Pro 2, including a stylus, an attachable keyboard and a docking station.
It's not yet clear how a Venue 11 Pro will perform relative to an equally well-equipped Surface Pro 2. Microsoft VP Panos Panay said last month that the Surface Pro will be faster than 95% of laptops, and Microsoft representatives have repeatedly characterized the device as an ultrabook, not a tablet. Surface director Cyril Belikoff told InformationWeek that the device's speed comes not only from Intel's Haswell processor, but also from the Surface Pro 2's engineering.
But even if Dell's tablet offers only 90% of the Surface Pro 2's performance, the Venue Pro 11 starts at just $499, well below the Surface Pro 2's $899. Dell hasn't yet disclosed the price of more powerful configurations or accessories, so it's not clear how cost will compare when the devices are comparably equipped. But would-be Surface buyers could be persuaded if Dell follows through by undercutting the Surface Pro 2's prices.
As for the 8-inch Venue 8 Pro, it doesn't compete in the same market as the larger Surface 2, per se, but both devices will be competing for many of the same buyers looking for a low-cost, ultra-mobile Windows tablet.
Several factors make the Surface 2 and Venue 8 Pro tough to compare. The 8 Pro lacks the Surface 2's screen real estate, and it's also hard to say how Dell's tablet, which uses an Intel Bay Trail processor, will perform relative to the Surface 2, which uses an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 4 processor. It's also unclear how popular traditional Windows software will be on the Dell tablet's relatively small screen.
Nonetheless, the 8 Pro boasts a 1080p display, is less than 9 mm thick, weighs under a pound, includes a mini-USB port and runs the full version of Windows 8.1, desktop apps included. The Venue 8 Pro starts at just $299 and -- unlike the execrable Acer Iconia W3, the first Windows mini-tablet -- might be a product people actually want to use.
The same might be said of the Surface 2, which is much nicer than its predecessor. However, it starts at $150 more than the 8 Pro, still doesn't come with a keyboard, and is limited to Modern UI apps. To buyers that want an ultra-mobile Windows tablet, the Venue Pro 8 might offer a more compelling package.
Microsoft faces another major dilemma in addition to increased competition: The market for Surface-like devices might not be very big to begin with. The Surface RT's poor sales testify to this possibility, as does the sluggish adoption of Windows 8 in general. But studies from several industry analysts provide additional evidence.
A Forrester study found two-thirds of information workers are interested in using tablets with keyboards but 80% still prefer to use a smartphone, tablet and keyboard in combination. It also found that many tablet users who prefer keyboards are pairing iPads with third party accessories rather than opting for more keyboard-centric Windows 8 devices. A Gartner study concluded employees prefer iOS to the Modern UI so much that they'll continue to bring iPads to work from home even if their employers issue Windows 8 hybrid devices. Another Forrest survey found far fewer users are interested in Windows 8 tablets than relative to a similar survey conducted last year.
The data suggests users are interested in tablets that can handle more productivity tasks but still see computers and tablets as separate tools. It also suggests Windows 8 hasn't persuaded users that convergence is the way forward, and raises doubts about whether Windows 8.1 adds enough to change their minds.
The news isn't all bad for the Surface line, though. For niche users, the Surface tablets will stand above the crowd; cloud-friendly users might be especially interested, given that Microsoft is bundling free Skype Wi-Fi and SkyDrive storage with the devices, for example. Healthy pre-sales might also indicate pent-up demand for the new models; many who considered the original Surface Pro have no doubt been waiting for the Pro 2 and its dramatic battery life improvements. Also, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said companies are interested in devices such as the Surfaces because they allow IT to manage one device that provides the utility of two.
Microsoft's recent Surface deployments with Delta Airlines and the London School of Business are likewise encouraging, and proof that Surface devices -- even the original Surface RT -- can fit enterprise needs. Microsoft also announced that its "Apps for Surface" program now includes SAP, news that could encourage more developers to consider Windows RT for line-of-business apps.
But these signs aren't convincing. Without knowing how much presale inventory Microsoft made available, it's premature to characterize the preorders as a triumph. Given how poorly the Surface RT sold, constrained supplies could simply mean Microsoft produced fewer units this time.
Similarly, enterprise interest in two-in-one devices might be increasing, but as the Dell Venue Pro 11 demonstrates, the Surface Pro 2 might not be the best value in this category. It also remains to be seen if IT's wishes mesh with those of end users; if employees keep bringing iPads to work after Windows tablets have been deployed, two-in-one strategies won't count for much.
Although Microsoft's deployments are important -- and according to Belikoff, the first batch of many to come -- they've also reinforced concerns. According to AppleInsider, some Delta pilots fought the Surface 2 "electronic flight bag," for example. The pilots reportedly would have preferred to use iPads, the device with which other airlines, such as American, have saved millions through similar programs of their own.
Modern UI apps from SAP are important, but the Modern UI still lags other tablet ecosystems. Forrester analyst David Johnson said "iPads will still keep their edge in usability and availability of mature apps for some time to come."
The new Surfaces are improved in every way, in short, but that doesn't mean Microsoft is out of the woods yet.