While it will be six months or longer before Microsoft releases Windows 8 and its companion products, the company has been putting out a lot of information about its plans lately. One big Windows 8 mystery to date is Windows for ARM based tablets. Formerly known as Windows on ARM (or WOA), the company recently settled on Windows RT as the official name for Windows 8 on low-cost ARM-based tablets.
Microsoft is very clearly positioning Windows RT tablets as iPad competitors for both the home and business markets. Until recently, there wasn’t much solid information about them beyond that they would include a touch optimized full version of Office. With the information released recently, however, there’s enough detail to speculate how Windows RT tablets will stack up to the iPad in business.
Setting up such a comparison, I’ve chosen to look at ten different IT and business related facets of the devices in question – largely because these will be core issues that businesses need to consider but also because these are areas where there is substantial detail available from Microsoft.
The iPad as a platform now offers $399 as its entry price with the iPad 2. While many consumers will opt for the new iPad over the iPad 2 – most business functionality is the same between both devices if you focus on Wi-Fi only models. It’s fairly likely that Microsoft will aim to offer Windows RT devices at that same price point (or possibly just beneath it). Windows RT devices with LTE may have a further price advantage in the form of carrier subsidies, which may be attractive up front but will likely be tied to a contract data plan that doesn’t match the price or flexibility of the month-to-month iPad plans. Microsoft’s tablet partners may also try to undercut large purchases of devices with volume discounts. Ultimately, the total cost of ownership will probably be pretty similar – but if we’re talking immediate up front costs, Windows RT may have an advantage.
Office apps and file formats
Microsoft Office functionality, if not the suite itself, is easily one of the most essential business needs of any computing platform. Microsoft is counting on Office being a killer mobile feature, a fact made obvious by its insistence that Windows RT will include touch optimized full versions of the major Office apps. Exactly what that will look like isn’t quite clear, but we can assume all the core functionality is there and it’s extremely likely that Track Changes will be supported. Track changes is pretty much the holy grail of mobile Office-type apps and the one feature that no iPad office suite has managed to offer with the exception of cloud-based virtualization apps like OnLive Desktop and CloudOn.
While it’s debatable whether or not iPad options like iWork, Quickoffice, Documents 2 Go, and Office2 offer enough functionality to be an Office replacement for various situations, so long as none of them integrates with Track Changes, Office will give Windows RT a pretty significant advantage.
App selection and distribution
Office and Office-type solutions, however, are not the be all and end all of mobile apps. In fact, for many people Office or alternatives may represent a very small portion of the functionality they need in a mobile device. After all, given the choice between typing a few thousand words on a laptop and an iPad, most of us will pick the laptop. But tracking expenses, brainstorming, sharing and notating changes to diagrams, reviewing data like electronic health records, putting together service quotes, and updating customer data in a CRM app are all important business functions and they have little to do with Office – and those are general business tasks rather than industry-specific needs.
The simple fact is that Apple has a two and half year jump on tablet apps over Microsoft. If Windows RT tablets could run legacy apps, which more expensive Intel-based Windows 8 tablets will be able to do, then Microsoft might outclass the iPad with Windows RT devices. But that isn’t the case. Even if Microsoft recruits enough companies to produce Windows RT business apps, those will be first release apps when Windows RT tablets ship later this year – iPad apps will be much further along, meaning fewer potential bugs and changes made based on user experience and requests. Definite point in favor of the iPad.
The question of app distribution is a different one, however. Microsoft has said that businesses will be able to create a catalog of apps for Windows RT users and that they will be able to do so through a “management infrastructure” that will give them the option to provide apps based on individual users, groups, and other account-related details. The company hasn’t said a lot about volume licensing, however.
Apple does make app distribution and volume licensing available for iOS but the company prefers to let third-party mobile management vendors handle the creation of company app stores or direct app installs on devices. Apple’s free Configurator tool and/or the company’s Volume Purchase Program can offer this functionality, but it in a more limited fashion that device management companies or app/information management solutions like App 47 and Apperian. Ultimately, both platforms will probably have similar capabilities of themselves or through other tools.
Custom app creation
Almost any large company has internally developed software that meet specific company or industry needs. The rise in demand for mobile developers proves that companies of types and sizes are looking to create the best internal tools possible. On the one hand, Apple has the more mature app platform – iOS development has been around since 2008. Microsoft also loses one of its key advantages with Windows RT in that no legacy Windows apps will run under it. However, the technologies that power Metro apps aren’t exactly brand new – they’ve been out there on a smaller scale (literally) since the release of Windows Phone 7. Both platforms can also function well with web-apps as well we virtualized solutions. That makes this category somewhat of a wash, though I’d give a slight edge to Apple because of the maturity of iOS as well as the fact that many companies have already created business-critical iPad and iPhone apps.
Overall device/mobile management options
Initially, Microsoft seemed to indicate that Windows RT devices would be completely unmanaged as they are not able to join a Windows/Active Directory domain, which can apply group policies that manage and secure Windows PCs. More recently, the company said that it would use a “management infrastructure” (presumably the one same one used for internal app deployment) to offer some management features including passcode security policies, the ability to remote wipe devices, and collect “maintenance” data, which includes anti-malware states. A likely policy is that Microsoft will use its Intune cloud management solution to which the company recently added suport for iOS and Android management.
While it’s completely conceivable that Microsoft will offer better management capabilities than it has already announced as well as more than the ones currently supported by Intune, which are fairly basic. However, based on current information, Microsoft still won’t support the breadth of management capabilities that Apple has built into iOS and that group policies provide to Windows PCs and Intel-based Windows 8 tablets. My assumption is that Microsoft may be starting out small with device management with the goal of expanding it over time. However, for the moment, Apple’s broader iOS management capabilities make it a better option overall for any company going with a device-management approach to mobile.
Virtual desktop licensing
Microsoft has streamlined licensing requirements for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions like those available from Citrix and VMWare in Windows 8. It has also given companies an incentive to choose Windows RT tablets over iPads or other non-Windows tablets. Windows 8 enterprise licensing essentially gives a company a free license for a Windows RT tablet to load a virtual Windows desktop complete with legacy apps along with every license for running Windows 8 on a PC. Each iPad or non-Windows device that similarly connects to a virtual desktop requires a companion device license.
Microsoft is clearly hoping this will incentivize companies to limit employee devices to Windows RT and not iPhones, iPads, Macs, or Android devices. How successful this strategy will be overall is hard to tell. I’d lay odds that any company with a full-on BYOD program is going to have to put the money for those licenses if users need to access legacy apps. The alternative is migrate away from any legacy apps or dismantle a BYOD program – not an easy task if it’s established and users are already bringing in devices.
It is, however, worth noting that the licenses are for a Windows 8 desktop – companies with VDI infrastructures typically rely on a Windows Server desktop because of the license issues with virtual Windows 7 desktops. In theory, companies could stick with that solution for iPad users. It’s also possible to virtualize Windows applications without a desktop – CloudOn virtualizes the Office apps for iPad without providing a desktop or file storage. Citrix offers tools for companies looking to do something similar.
Ultimately, this could be a point in favor of Windows RT for companies with a heavy reliance on VDI. For other companies, however, it may be a complete non-issue.
Integration with existing enterprise systems
Windows RT and the iPad both offer similarly limited integration options with some enterprise systems. Both support Exchange. Both can support Sharepoint (via a third-party app on the iPad). Other systems, like Basecamp from 37 Signals, can be accessed by apps on the iPad (and presumably Windows RT support will become an option). Neither directly supports Active Directory and related technologies, though Microsoft’s “management infrastructure” will no doubt key off of Active Directory in the same manner as many mobile management vendors. Overall, neither platform is going to have great built-in support for enterprise systems but there will almost certainly be a stronger selection of mature iOS third-party tools available than there will be Windows RT options in the near term.
User choice and experience
One aspect of consumerized IT is that employees have become used to picking their own tools – ones they prefer or that work best for their responsibilities. That includes devices like the iPad, cloud services, and apps. As the role of IT continues to evolve, more and more companies are giving workers a say in the solutions they use. The iPad has been overwhelmingly popular, which means that users are more apt to choose it – either a personal device brought into the office or as company-provided solution. Even if a company standardizes on Windows RT, iPad-owning employees may still keep bringing their preferred device and apps into the office.
Required infrastructure and IT familiarity
One of the assumed advantages that Windows RT devices were expected to have over the iPad is no need for additional infrastructure and no learning curve on the part of IT professionals. That doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. It seems clear that any Windows RT management and app deployment will require a product (be it Intune or some other “management infrastructure”) that many IT organizations don’t have in place. Even supporting the devices will be different from previous Windows releases. IT systems and processes will likely need rethinking for Windows RT.
That’s not to say, however, that the iPad doesn’t. Although Apple offers free tools for iOS device management and deployments (Apple Configurator, iPhone Configuration Utility, and its volume purchase program), they don’t come close to the array of features in true mobile management solutions. Again, there’s the cost of additional infrastructure and a potential learning curve. The difference is that much of the knowledge and resources needed to support and manage the iPad are already out there and have been for over two years. That doesn’t guarantee that the iPad is going to be cheaper or easier as a platform for businesses, but it does offer a mature ecosystem and related tools.
Ultimately, the final tally is going to be made by individual companies and IT leaders within them. Windows RT will give the iPad more competition in the workplace than any other platform out there. However, with the iPad entrenched in both consumer and business culture, Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do.