Microsoft Surface: Is this the tablet for government?

In the GCN Lab, we’re neutral about hardware. We’ve given good reviews to both Apple and PC devices when they deserved it, and bad reviews when called for as well. But it was hard not to smile as Microsoft announced the Surface tablet, its foray into the hardware side of the industry.

Microsoft makes its money with software. It’s right there in the name. But without a hardware arm, it has always been at the mercy of the Dells and the HPs of the industry to create platforms for Windows to run on. In that sense, it was worse off than Apple, which creates the OS, the hardware and everything in between for its products.

And let’s face it, with a few notable exceptions, PC manufacturers have never really been very innovative in the tablet arena. With Windows 8 coming out, Microsoft simply couldn’t afford not to take the bull by the horns and create its own device. If nothing else, it will let Microsoft say to PC manufacturers, “Now this is how it’s done.”


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And from what I’ve seen in my brief glimpse at Surface, they do seem to have done things right. The little 9.3 mm thick tablet is just wide enough to support a USB port. Thank you! It’s a port that’s sorely needed on a lot of devices, including, dare I say it, the iPad.

Some other innovations in the Surface have never been done before, yet they seem so elegant and common sense-like that one wonders if other PC manufacturers were even trying to create new things.

A protective cover that folds down and becomes a flexible full keyboard and trackpad? Brilliant. And you can get it in a range of colors, from basic black to hot pink. How about a little kickstand that lets you prop up the Surface anywhere to become like a portable computer? It can turn any surface into a makeshift desk. One of its two cameras even tilts at a 22-degree angle so it works perfectly when the stand is out. And the sound system and microphone come pre-tuned to work well with Skype. That’s absolutely perfect.

It also will come in two models: a more consumer-friendly Windows RT model, which is going to be more like the iPad, and a Windows 8 Pro model that is probably going to be the one government is most interested in getting.

One criticism Microsoft and its fans have constantly leveled at Apple products, and the iPad in particular, is that they’re not easy or secure enough to connect to a business or government network. But that’s kind of like one political party criticizing another’s policies without offering any alternatives. Now Microsoft has put its money where its mouth is, and we will be able to see if Surface is a better product for serous workers after all.

As piqued as my interest is, I think the success of Surface will come down to two factors that were not discussed at the unveiling party this week.

First will be battery life. If the Surface can produce nine or 10 hours of constant use, then it would be a serious competitor to everything on the market, including the iPad.

Second, and this is where Microsoft may fall down, is the price. Can this amazing device be put into the hands of consumers for $399, or even less? Microsoft has said the Surface will be priced similarly to the iPad, ranging from about $499 to $829, depending on the model. Will that be good enough to bring people into the fold?

As a third consideration for government, security would have to be addressed. There is no fingerprint sensor on either version of the Surface Tablet, and no space for a smart-card reader. If there were an option for full encryption, especially on the pro model, that might help to close the security gap some, though we would still have to find a way to create two-factor authentication. Perhaps Windows 8 itself could help out in that area?

Of course, mobile devices have been changing the approach to two-factor authentication. Third-party companies have been developing government-strength authentication apps for Android and Apple products, and similar products could be developed for Windows. The increased adoption of mobile devices has even led some to wonder if such things as Personal Identity Verification cards, used as the second factor in civilian agencies, are already obsolete.

We’ll know more in the fall. The Surface will become available close to Windows 8’s launch date in October, and we will do our best to get ahold of one in the lab a little early and let you know how it all works. Until then, we can only hope that its beauty goes beyond just the surface.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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