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Microsoft attempts to make Surface RT tablet enterprise-worthy

Microsoft's Surface RT is a consumer device, while Surface Pro is designed for enterprises, but there may be a place for the RT in the corporate world.

Microsoft's Surface Pro tablets make sense for enterprise IT shops, but now the lower-cost Surface RT tablet is being positioned as a device that businesses should also consider.

Microsoft has emphasized its enterprise message for Windows 8.1 at TechEd North America 2013 and at last week's Build Developer Conference in San Francisco to encourage adoption of the new operating system and Surface tablets.

But Microsoft's attempts to boost Surface's enterprise presence will require some heavy lifting from its channel partners and application developers. Competitors such as Apple's iPad and Android-based devices have already made their way into businesses, and the software ecosystem for Windows 8 is small compared with the more established iOS and Android communities.

Microsoft this week kicked off a two-tier distribution program dubbed the Microsoft Devices Program and a commercial application development program called AppsForSurface. The company apparently hopes that adding channel support and apps will sell the Surface tablet to corporate IT shops.

The lack of apps is a major downside to the Surface tablet, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an IT consultancy in Kirkland, Wash. Cherry said he even wondered why anyone would buy it.

A handful of channel partners are already on board to persuade companies to buy the Surface. Two-tier distribution partners such as Synnex Corp., Tech Data Corp. and Ingram Micro Inc. are in the first wave of distributors. They are authorized to sell the products to commercial resellers such as CDW, En Pointe Technologies Inc., CompuCom Systems Inc. and others.

It is unclear whether the channel program will translate into more Surface tablets sold, especially as new Windows-based tablets emerge and other OEMs unveil new devices later this year. But it can't hurt.

"I think anytime [Microsoft] can get into additional channels, it can only help," said Tom Mainelli, research director of tablets at Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC. "The channels [Surface was] in, specifically retail, are not where enterprise buyers buy their hardware."

More than 1 million Surface Pro and Surface RT units shipped during the first quarter of 2013, with 74% of those shipments being attributed to Surface Pro and 25% to Surface RT, according to IDC.

Can Surface RT work for the enterprise?

The new programs reflect Microsoft's push to not only promote Surface Pro to the enterprise but also establish Surface RT for business users.

However, promoting Surface RT as an enterprise tablet has been greeted with skepticism, even as Outlook becomes available to Windows 8.1 Surface RT users.

More on this topic

Part of the problem is that enterprise IT shops want to image Windows tablets in the same way they image Windows PCs, and that isn't possible with Surface RT, Mainelli said. The Surface Pro can be reimaged.

"RT is a tough sell to anyone right now," he said. "It's hard to find the real value in RT."

But the channel does not seem to be concerned, as long as the Surface RT and Surface Pro are positioned correctly to enterprise customers.

"Imaging is a core part of the PC fleet management business," said an executive at En Pointe Technologies in Los Angeles. "But the RT has a different purpose as a companion device. It's just like all these other tablets. IT doesn't have control over them unless they have the [mobile device management] solution."

Without the ability to reimage the Surface RT with an organization's own image, the industry may not perceive the Windows 8 tablet as enterprise-worthy. But that doesn't mean it won't have a place with end users.

"I think what you'll see is a workflow-specific device," said Rob Moyer, vice president of the Microsoft global business unit and cloud services at Synnex Corp. in Fremont, Calif. "The RT forces you more into the cloud than the [Surface] Pro," he said.

And that combination could fuel support for Surface in the enterprise. The Surface RT tablet could turn into an industry-specific device aimed at vertical markets such as education or health care, or workers could use it as a companion to a primary PC. The Surface Pro can also be deployed as a notebook replacement.

Microsoft recently announced it would sell the Surface RT for $199 until Aug. 31 to K-12 institutions and universities. In comparison, the starting price for a Surface RT unit is $499.

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Will you buy a Surface Pro to replace an existing tablet for your enterprise?