The industry was rocked earlier this month by the shock news that Microsoft is bowling into the client compute hardware space with the launch of its Surface tablet PC.
In a market that is still defined and dominated by Apple, can the software giant finally be the vendor to make a dent in the iPad's massive market share? We have singled out six key questions, the answers to which may hold the key to whether or not the Surface will be an explosive success or a damp squib.
Can Microsoft cultivate the right routes to market?
Microsoft's reach into the UK channel extends far beyond licensing specialists. In fact, it is fair to say that all IT resellers and integrators have some kind of relationship with the firm.
Finding a broad enough channel to give the Surface ample retail and B2B routes to market may not be a problem for Microsoft, but the intricacies of its engagement with partners might need rethinking. Selling hardware could require the vendor to reinforce its ties with hardware VARs and implement rebates and partner programmes more tailored to tin.
Partners ChannelWeb spoke to claimed they are asking the vendor for clarification on how the device will be taken to market, and if and how partners can make money selling it. Some pointed out that Microsoft has a record of dabbling in hardware, so managing channel schemes should not be a big problem.
In a communiqué to partners seen by ChannelWeb, Microsoft pledged its commitment to its existing channel, explaining that it believes its new-found hardware play will "take [its] place in the diverse Windows ecosystem".
The missive added that the vendor "remains committed to launching Windows 8 and RT" with its existing distribution, resale and services partners.
"This announcement does not change how we work together," says the letter.
Todd Christy, chief strategy officer at mobile software firm Verivo, claimed that Microsoft's channel clout could give it the muscle needed to gain traction in the commercial world.
"We expect Microsoft will be well received on the B2B front by building corporate demand via the promise of a consistent desktop or tablet experience, common management, and its daunting global distribution force," he said.
Rob Pickering, chief executive of PBX firm ipcortex, claimed the Surface could have a big impact on comms resellers, as the market watches to see if Microsoft embraces unified communications open standards.
"It will be a high-priced device, which [will mean it is] not a consumer device," he added.
What will the Surface's launch mean for hardware vendor partners?
The vendor's traditional PC hardware partners will surely be harbouring even more concerns than Microsoft's channel partners.
Lenovo, Acer and Dell all already have Windows-based tablets on the market, with plans afoot for Windows 8 models later in the year.
Unsurprisingly, the major PC makers have all been fairly tight-lipped in the wake of the Surface announcement. But Steve Felice, chief commercial officer at Dell, did tell Indian financial broadsheet The Economic Times that "it is hardly ideal" to have had just three days' notice before the grand unveiling of the Surface.
Meanwhile, Acer EMEA president Oliver Ahrens told Reuters: "I do not think [Microsoft] will be successful because you cannot be a hardware player with two products".
A number of onlookers have suggested that Microsoft's play in the tablet market will be in a similar vein to Google's, in the Nexus range of mobile devices, which are developed hand in hand with several hardware vendors.
Christy from Verivo claimed the Surface launch is geared towards "challenging [Microsoft's] hardware partners by launching an innovative reference design".
"If this is enough to spur exciting new tablet designs from its partners, Microsoft has done its job and will quietly retire its hardware strategy, much as Google is doing," he added.
David Tuck, principal consultant Microsoft, Citrix and VMware partner Plan-Net, agrees that Microsoft simply wants to spur on the hardware vendors to get the most out of Windows 8.
"Are [the PC vendors] going to switch en masse to Android or is Apple going to allow them to create tablets for iOS? I don't think so," he said.
"Many of them already create tablets for Android and they will not stop doing so; however, they can also now create a Windows version too."
Is the surface the right tablet for the B2B space?
The iPad has had problems gaining serious traction in the B2B world, with IT managers harbouring concerns about how to integrate Apple into vast estates of Windows-centric technology.
With that in mind, many will be banking on the Surface as the product that can elevate the tablet to the status of being an integral part of enterprises' compute infrastructure.
Market watcher Pearlfinders gathers data on enterprise CIOs' preferences and strategy and Anthony Cooper, managing director of the London-based firm, claimed most IT chiefs are still antipathic towards Apple kit.
Of the 2,071 IT decision makers quizzed by Pearlfinders this year, only 139 claimed they were considering investing in Apple devices, with 78 per cent believing there are "significant problems" with incorporating Apple. Even for those CIOs who are admitting iPads into their firms, "tolerance of [Apple's] presence in the workplace is [often] borne out of a desire to accommodate BYOD user habits, rather than driven by business strategy," according to Cooper.
"Surface's success will be reliant on resellers' ability to convince CIOs it has superior security, reliability, business applications and back-end support on launch, and Microsoft's commitment to providing resellers with credible evidence to support this business case," he added.
James Bird, chief executive of system builder Stone Group, claimed that the difficulties of integrating Apple into Windows-based networks has stymied the iPad's adoption as a business device, particularly in the public sector.
The Stone man claimed that, as yet, organisations have been cautiously supporting tablet technology. But the Surface's launch will mean "many more organisations will feel increasingly confident in using tablets", he predicted.
"IT managers will take comfort from the relative ease in which the Surface tablet will integrate with their Exchange Server and existing applications that are designed to natively support Microsoft operating systems," explained Bird.
Is Microsoft entering the market too late?
The iPad is already on its third iteration, and enthusiasm for and sales of the device show little sign of slowing. Meanwhile, HP canned its first tablet device - the TouchPad - last year, while Dell and RIM have recently scaled back their tablet ambitions. Cisco has also quit the sector, with its Cius device having been on the market less than a year.
Daniel Axsäter, chief executive of security specialist CronLab, believes Microsoft should be going after clearly defined niches, rather than trying to blitz the wider tablet market.
"It will be very hard for [Microsoft] to compete on the market for general tablets - there are simply so many Android and iOS tablets out there already and they have attracted enormous numbers of app developers for whom it will be quite a bit of extra effort to also start to support a third OS," he explained.
Meanwhile, Pickering at ipcortex believes the Surface is an all-or-nothing gambit.
"It is a bit of a last-chance saloon. It is do or die, or Microsoft is effectively ceding that whole growing marketplace to Apple or Android," he explained.
How do the Surface's specs stack up against competing devices?
The Surface features a few tech bells and whistles which Microsoft must hope will set it apart from Apple and all the other pretenders to the tablet throne.
Chief among them is the magnetic clip cover, similar to the iPad's, which also doubles as a keyboard. Other features include a built-in kickstand, scratch-resistant gorilla glass and a USB port. Tuck from Plan-Net gave Microsoft's tech vision the thumbs-up.
"When it comes to specification, it is obvious that Microsoft has been doing its homework," he said. "The Windows RT is a tenth of a millimetre thinner than the iPad and has a larger 10.6in [screen], against 9.7 for the [new] iPad. This means it can support true 16.9 widescreen which the iPad cannot, which for the movie aficionado might be important. It does, however, due to this larger screen, weigh about 20g more."
Can the Surface be the iPad killer?
Onlookers might have talked up the chances of hardware giants including RIM, Motorola, Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo and Asus, but all these firms and others have been unable to take their market share above mid-single digits, with the market leader holding well over half the market. In a few short days Microsoft has probably generated more hype than all the aforementioned vendors put together. But can the Surface really be the product to upset the Apple cart?
John Campbell, alliances director at business intelligence firm Qliktech, claims Surface is unlikely to be an iPad killer, but that, if Microsoft gets the branding right, it could make a decent-sized dent in Apple's market share.
"Apple has a great brand with an almost iconic status and its hardware is leading to a blurring of business, social and personal requirements," he added. "For this reason, status and branding around the launch is going to be important for Microsoft. If it does this correctly, Surface will gain significant market share and keep Apple on its toes."
Dave Stevinson, sales director of distributor VIP Computers, claimed it is uncertain whether Microsoft can "capture the hearts of the casual user - the biggest demographic". But he said he was "certain [that the Surface] will be a big hit in the business world, with ERP systems, Exchange and proprietary Windows-only applications".
"Users love the form factor of tablets, enterprises need the security of Microsoft - so here we have what on paper looks like a win/win situation," he added. "Without a shadow of doubt, I will have my name down for the Microsoft Surface and am rather excited about the future."
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