Monday, 10 December 2012

Surface vs iPad – Can Microsoft offer schools more choice?

Microsoft Surface to rival the iPad in schools?
Apple had a big head start in the tablet market, but early this year Microsoft revealed its own strategy for taking on the iPad: the latest version of its Windows operating system, Windows 8, allows for a new breed of hybrid tablet PCs – part tablet computer, part laptop.

Inspired by Apple’s touch-based iOS system, Windows 8, which launched this autumn – is radically different from its predecessors. The system doesn’t even have Microsoft’s iconic ‘start’ menu. Instead, all applications are spread across a tiled dashboard, resembling road signs that can be navigated with a swipe of the finger on the display screen or with a keyboard and an in-built mouse pad. The tiles also provide a glimpse at the activity occurring in applications connected to the web, such as email.

The operating system’s versatility means it can be used to power computer tablets as well as traditional PCs. In fact, it powers a new tablet from Microsoft called Surface, which aims to take advantage of one of the few criticisms of the iPad, particularly among educators – that it’s better for consuming content than creating it.

The Surface tablet attaches to a removable razor-thin touch-sensitive keyboard that acts like a book cover. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Surface is a media consumption device that doesn’t compromise ‘the productivity that PCs are uniquely known for’.

Should schools consider the Surface?

Let’s look more closely: yes, the keyboard is a stylish add-on, the touch-screen display is easy to use and a Windows system with Office is pre-installed – there is much in the way of temptation for students and teachers alike.

However, in an age of austerity and with the recent budget announcements failing to create much confidence for schools, price is an increasingly important factor. The Microsoft Surface, although billed as the iPad slayer has done little to differentiate itself on price with its entry-level 32GB version costing £399.99 (and the type cover keyboard is an additional £104.99), while the larger 64GB tablet will cost £599.99.

Parking the issue of price for a moment, another critical clue to whether the Surface will be suitable for schools was hinted at during the New York launch event of its Windows 8 operating system in October. The pitch, lasting 48 minutes, mentioned nearly every buzz word associated with commerce, business and enterprise. Yet education was not one of them. This may seem trivial but it questions whether Microsoft views the Surface as an evolutionary system; like Apple when they released the first iPad, the education sector doesn’t seem to be their principal and immediate concern.

That leads us to question; should we or shouldn’t we consider the Surface as a classroom learning device? In our opinion, cost is the decisive factor and given the huge price tag it’s difficult to see how schools can afford to offer widespread usage. The risk is that some schools will invest in certain areas/departments and/or subjects, in order to reduce costs. The effect is that students end up in a bifurcated environment, in which two teachers, for example, can offer lesson plans supported by the new tablet device and four cannot, due to department cuts. Guess which teachers I as a student, a digital native, am going to respond to best?

As well as the budgetary implication, another significant point pulls the argument back to Apple vs Microsoft, Windows vs iOS – Microsoft Surface doesn’t have the ecosystem and vertical integration that Apple has nurtured for so many years and, let’s face it, brand appeal also has some weighting here.

So, although the Surface doesn’t seem to offer us a solution, or at least not an immediate one to the investment associated with digital integration, it is visually enticing, functional, but more importantly, Microsoft is showing us that there is another big innovator out there. And it’s from one of Apple’s biggest competitors.

We wanted to bring you ground-breaking news but in reality advances in technology are incremental and evolutionary. The Surface tablet may not be suitable for education right now but if Microsoft can create a lighter, cheaper alternative, Windows 8 would gain immediate momentum in its challenge against Apple iOS.

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