The tablet market offers a dizzying array of choices for schools and students. As prices drop on many tablets, some of the choices appear economically attractive, but likely do not offer enough value for even short term needs. Many tablets are being offered with the Windows RT operating system, which is a different product from the full version Windows 8.1. The Motley Fool reported today that Microsoft indicated that going forward, Microsoft does not intend to continue with three distinct operating system platforms for mobile devices; Windows 8.1, Windows RT, and Windows Phone. According to Microsoft executive Julie Larson-Green , Microsoft is not “going to have three [operating systems]” going forward. This statement should give pause to schools or students considering a purchase of RT tablets. The useful life of an RT tablet will be greatly shortened if RT is discontinued. The smart money would bet RT is on the chopping block.
Although some third party hardware vendors are pushing RT tablets, the likely scenario is that this is a very short term business strategy that will end soon. Currently, one of the biggest limitations of RT is that software developers are not willing to invest in creating apps for this platform because of the perceived short term product lifecycle. If Microsoft announces anytime soon that they will discontinue RT, then that will be a knife in the heart of RT. Users will be left with an orphaned tablet. At any price, the RT tablet is not worth the risk.
One of the strongest features of RT tablets is the ability to run a version of Microsoft Office. While that is attractive to many students, it simply is not enough. The lack of apps, and the inability to obtain other compatible software for the RT operating systems renders this tablet a penny wise and pound foolish purchase. Microsoft is moving ahead with tablet strategy that far exceeds the RT experience. Windows 8.1 tablets are able to run any Windows software as one would on a PC/laptop. That is the sweet spot for many students. Having a tablet that is fully compatible with software packages removes many of the limitations that Android and Apple tablets pose. Microsoft is blurring the lines between the PC and tablet, offering the power of a laptop, and the convenience of a tablet. The Microsoft Surface Pro is the model of the future for Windows tablets.
There are many benefits of Windows 8.1 tablets. Microsoft has greatly improved battery life on the Surface Pro 2, which is a big concern for students. Another tremendous benefit of a Surface Pro that students may not be aware of is the inclusion of a digitizer to support a Wacom pen stylus. What this means in usability parlance is that the writing experience on the tablet is very natural and efficient. For note taking and textbook annotating, the second digitizer on the Microsoft Pro is perhaps the most significant advantage of the Surface Pro over any other tablet. A tablet that supports all software, has decent battery life, and offers a smooth and efficient writing experience is unique in the market. The Surface Pro is still the only Windows tablet on the market to offer Wacom support, although in 2014, copy cat products are likely to emerge. Importantly, competing products usually are accompanied by a lower price advantage.
Few technology features impact student purchasing decisions the way price does. The Surface Pro is still priced way out of reach for most students. At about $1000, it is just not on the radar. The cost likely has to be cut in half. Unless schools make institutional purchases the way they do for iPads, the Surface Pro will be used mostly by business users because of the high cost. That will be unfortunate, because the Surface Pro is perhaps the first tablet that is uniquely suited to address a myriad of student needs; good battery life, ability to load any software including Microsoft Office, a writing surface that supports notes and text annotation, support for peripheral devices, and a keyboard/cover that is highly useable. The melding of the best of laptops and tablets is essentially the story of the Surface Pro and Windows 8.1. However, until the Surface Pro or equivalent type of model becomes more economically feasible, avoiding RT is likely a good strategy.