Another Windows Tablet Falls Short Of The iPad

Posted: 7/11/2013

As seen on InfoWorld.com 

By: Galen Gruman

Even though businesspeople love iPads, IT loves Windows, so it keeps hoping Microsoft and its hardware partners will finally deliver a Windows tablet that makes users forget the iPad. Last week, Microsoft pitched the idea that Windows 8.1 will render the unloved Windows 8 lovable, and several consultancies and analyst firms called to tell me they thought Microsoft had a real shot. Many skew their findings to favor Microsoft due to business relationships, both with Microsoft directly and with Microsoft-loving IT clients -- Gartner last week once again showed its dubious judgment when it comes to Windows predictions.

But Microsoft if nothing is persistent, and it has a strong track record of getting it right on the third or fourth try. Thus, I decided to check out some of the devices that Microsoft is touting as the tablets that will bring users home to Windows. As my colleague Woody Leonhard has shown, Windows 8.1 is better than Windows 8, especially for its Metro environment, but it's nothing to lust after. What about those new 8-inch Windows tablets, such as the Acer Iconia W3 that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touted this week? Apple's 7.9-inch iPad Mini is a big hit, and Android makers have their own versions. It's natural that PC tablet vendors jump in too.

Once again, the iPad -- the iPad Mini, in this case -- has nothing to fear. The Acer Iconia is just a so-so tablet. The good news: The user interface in the Windows Desktop portion is no more scrunched than in a full-size Windows tablet -- it's still hard to read and tap, but about the same as on a larger tablet. Having a physical Start button is also handy, as Microsoft's full-size Surface Pro lacks one.

The bad news: It's thicker, heavier, and slower, and it has half the battery life of an iPad Mini. Its screen is decidedly inferior, with a yellowish cast, a dull appearance, and a limited viewing angle, and its touchscreen needs a heavy touch to respond. Athough there's an SD card for additional storage, its Wi-Fi radio doesn't support faster 5GHz 802.11n networks. Office 2013 and other Desktop apps -- the main attraction of a Windows tablet to business users -- are even harder to use in the 8-inch environment than they are on a full-size Windows tablet. It gets unpleasantly warm on its left side after just a few minutes of use. It feels plasticky and underpowered.

Few PC makers understand how good Apple's hardware is and how cheap they look by comparison, especially when you compare prices and realize the high-quality iPad Mini costs less -- $329 versus $379 -- as the cheap-feeling Iconia W3. The reason: Because Windows takes so much storage space, you need a 32GB Iconia to equal the usable storage capacity of a 16GB iPad Mini. These issues won't likely to dissuade most Windows users, who buy mostly cheap PCs anyhow.

Security is one issue that's dear to IT organizations. Ironically, Microsoft falls short in the basics here. Yes, you can apply group policy objects to a Windows 8 tablet, which you can't do to an iPad or any non-Windows device. But all iPads (and iPhones) support 256-bit encryption out of the box -- in fact, it can't be turned off. Windows tablets? Not so much. Few support Microsoft's BitLocker encryption technology (Microsoft's Surface Pro is one that does), which means they cannot be used in corporate environments that require device-level encryption.

Device-level encryption is a fundamental policy requirement for most companies, enforced through Exchange Active Sync (EAS) via an Exchange or System Center server when a person tries to connect to email -- so why don't all new Windows devices support it? All iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads do, and they have since 2010. How can Apple make device-level encryption standard across all its devices but Microsoft can't get its hardware makers to do it? (This month, Apple also achieved federal FIPS-1402 Level 2 certification, a key step most mobile rivals have not taken.)

In an age of consumerization, device makers need to design their devices to work in both consumer and business environments. Apple figured that out in 2010, and Samsung adopted the same approach last year. Why not Windows PC makers? Buyers shouldn't have the think to ask about whether device encryption is a feature in their Windows tablet. It should just work.

If people buy devices like the Iconia W3, imagine the red faces  that will result when IT has to explain, "Sorry, but your new PC isn't  secure enough, so we can't let you access your email or calendar. That  iPad we don't want you to use is secure, but you didn't hear it from  me." Didn't Microsoft learn this lesson with the failure of the Surface RT tablet and its crippled Windows RT operating system?

The lack of BitLocker support may seem like a small issue -- many small businesses don't worry about encryption, for example. But it's a foundational concern and points to the mixed messages (you might call it hypocrisy) of the Windows world. Windows 8 already suffers from having one foot stuck in the past and the other in a half-baked future. It at least needs to satisfy the corporate requirements its target buyers actually need -- such as encryption.

Weston Morris, a smart guy at the Unisys consultancy who focuses on consumerization, has suggested that Windows 8.1 is the perfect pivot for IT to embrace the new world introduced by Apple but feared by IT. Windows 8.1's security and management model is more like Apple's policy-based approach: It embraces the commingling of personal and corporate assets using differential management, and through Metro it targets the Apple view of focused apps. With one foot in the past and one in the future, Windows 8.1 will give IT the space to make the necessary mindset change, he argues.

It's possible some companies will be that enlightened, but many will cling to the old ways as long as they can, until that split becomes unsustainable and the fall painful. The better way to make the change is to, well, make the change, and begin the move to modern platforms like the iPad and Android "Jelly Bean." I say "begin" because both need further maturation, some of which iOS 7 will bring in ways I'm under promise not to reveal until it ships. But even IT may be impressed.

Buying inadequate devices like Acer Iconia or Microsoft's own Surface Pro only lets IT fall further out of touch with the new reality, while wasting money and frustrating buyers. Spend that money on Windows 7 laptops and iPads. Ignore the Windows 8 offerings.

This article, "Another Windows tablet falls short of the iPad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.