Last weekend I spent several hours with a Microsoft Surface tablet running Windows RT, courtesy of a Forrester client. I liked it. A lot. Some quick initial observations and thoughts on what it means for I&O professionals:

  1. The combination keyboard/cover is genius. The keyboard on the tablet I used is the flat, non-tactile one instead of the one with Chiclet keys, but like the iPad it cleans the screen when it's closed. I got used to the feel quickly but would still prefer a tactile keyboard if I bought one.
  2. The performance is smooth and quick. I find RT to be very responsive on the Surface. It's not quite as fluid as iOS on an iPad, but it's close, and the touchscreen is precise. The screen is also bright and clear with rich, vibrant colors – at least to my eyes.
  3. It feels heavy but solid. Any concerns about Microsoft as a hardware vendor will vanish in the first 5 minutes with it. One glitch however: This was the second Surface for this client because the original device was defective and wouldn't recognize the keyboard, so there may be some QA glitches with early versions.
  4. I use the touchscreen more than the touchpad. I thought I'd have a hard time giving up the mouse, but found myself tapping the screen even though the Surface has a mini touchpad. It's a natural motion, and I found Office 2013 Preview a joy to use – but did need to use the touchpad for some things.
  5. It takes time to get used to the new Windows interface. I like the new Windows experience a lot overall, but the main frustration for me is having to install both the touch version and the desktop version of apps in some cases – one from the Windows App Store and the other from the vendor's website. This wasn't obvious until I spent 30 minutes a few weeks ago in frustration trying to figure out why Evernote wouldn't launch on the traditional desktop on the Slate I have, for example.
  6. Many of the apps are new to the Microsoft touch interface, and it shows. I am totally dependent upon Evernote and love the latest version on the iPad, but the Windows touch version is not yet as good -very hard to navigate, and it doesn't support rich text editing yet, which will be a deal breaker for some. Still, the app store for RT seems to be ramping up quickly.

Note: I've been carrying around a Samsung Series 7 Slate for the past six months loaded with Windows 8 Preview, so I've had some time to get used to the new Windows experience over time. For me, the Surface's user interface is not new, but it is new for most. That means that there will be a learning curve as people get used to the dual nature of the desktop and some of the apps.

What I&O pros need to know:
The only fully supported management tools for the Microsoft Surface are Windows Intune and Exchange Active Sync. This is a very good thing in Forrester's view. In our evaluations of both System Center Configuration Manager 2007 and 2012, we found very few companies using it well. It's complex and requires advanced skills to master, and Group Policy is also a challenge for many. Windows Intune is a breeze by comparison and will simplify the adoption of the Surface tablet in the enterprise.
Apps need to be specifically compiled for the ARM processor architecture and Windows RT. Apparently this is a straightforward process with Visual Studio, but may not be possible with older apps or apps developed with other toolsets. There is high probability of frustration among the user community if they get a shiny new Surface, only to find out their apps won't work.
Employees with less advanced computer skills will struggle to master the new Windows interface. The incoherence between the new interface and the traditional desktop interface, combined with the split-app behavior between them will take time to master. Be prepared to offer 1:1 coaching of executives and other high-touch employees if you decide to offer the Surface to employees in your organization. However, once these challenges are overcome, we think workers will be very happy with their Surfaces.
What do you think? Is RT confusing alongside Windows 8? Do you agree with me that the Surface has great promise?