Can the iPad Pro take on the Surface Pro at work?

ipad pro apple pencil lightning connector
Credit: Susie Ochs

Apple's new super-sized tablet arrives in November, targets the enterprise

From the get go, it was inevitable that Apple's new iPad Pro would be compared to Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 (and the newer Surface Pro 4). The iPad Pro borrows heavily from the Surface Pro design with its larger form factor (a 12.9-in. screen), keyboard cover and support for a stylus -- Apple calls it the "Pencil." Diverging from Microsoft's vision, however, the iPad Pro relies on a purely mobile operating system -- iOS -- while the Surface Pro runs the same version of Windows as a desktop PC.

Pricing is similar: The iPad Pro starts at $799 for a 32GB model, $949 for a 128GB model and $1,079 for the 128GB version with 4G capabilities. The Surface Pro 4, which ships next week, starts at $999 and offers more configurations (and a top-end price of $2,199).

When looking at the two devices, most comparisons focus on the user experience, access to apps, and what might suit both consumers and business users in the long run. What's often left out of the equation are the IT implications of choosing between the two, as IT shops decide which will be easier to adopt, manage and support in their enterprise environments, both in the short and long term.

From an IT perspective, there's a natural tendency and some good reasons to stay in Microsoft's ecosystem. And by waiting so long to release a larger iPad and eschewing a concerted push for the enterprise market earlier, Apple has allowed Microsoft to pitch its tablets as the best option for the enterprise.

But is that really the case?

Integrating with existing infrastructure

Although iOS has been around for years, it remains a mixed bag in terms of integrating with traditional enterprise systems, most notably Active Directory. Active Directory is part of the bedrock of enterprise computing and is directly leveraged for authentication (including single sign-on), access control, file permissions, audit logs and PC management via group policies. Active Directory and System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) are core tools for any systems administrator.

iOS devices cannot join an Active Directory domain (although that Macs can). iOS also doesn't support multiple users. A device is intended to have a single user, even if that device is shared among individuals such as in a classroom, retail environment, or other situations where users don't have dedicated devices.

This doesn't mean iOS devices can't be managed or configured in bulk. Apple began offering a basic, manual level of management as early as iOS 2. Five years ago, with the release of iOS 4, Apple opened the door to over-the-air management using mobile device management (MDM) solutions. Apple also offers a free tethered management tool called Apple Configurator that can be used to apply policies to devices connected to a Mac running the tool via USB. More recently, Apple introduced its Device Enrollment Program (DEP), which allows organizations buying iOS devices in bulk to pre-register them with a mobile management solution. This greatly streamlines the configuration process.

There are two issues here that might make the Surface Pro more appealing as a business tablet.

The first is that it integrates with Active Directory and other enterprise systems. There's no need for additional tools, which can incur per-device licensing fees or extra processes. There is also no need to recreate user or device groups and policies. The typical Windows policies already place can easily extend to a tablet with little extra effort. This reduces overhead, simplifies troubleshooting and doesn't require additional IT training.

The second is that iOS management options are nowhere near as granular as Active Directory group policies, which can restrict and configure almost every aspect of PC operation based on a range of factors -- the particular device being used; the user or group membership; or when/where a person logs into a device. Although the policy options available in iOS have grown substantially over the past five years and can be applied based on a similar range of factors, they still don't offer the level of specificity of Active Directory.

How significant these issues are in a company's decision between an iPad Pro and a Surface Pro will vary. If an organization already has a heavy investment in iOS devices/device management, supporting the iPad Pro may not be particularly onerous, though concerns about per-device licensing of a management solution may still be an issue.

It's also worth noting that iOS can natively interact with some common enterprise systems, the biggest example being Microsoft Exchange.

What about enterprise apps?

While enterprise integration is a point in favor of the Surface Pro, the ability to run corporate apps is a much bigger one. Almost all mid-to-large size organizations have custom in-house apps. These can accomplish anything from time and attendance tasks to inventory control to customer service to filing mileage and expense reports to storing clinical data. The larger and older the organization, the more enterprise apps are likely to be in use. In many cases, these apps are years or even decades old and have been tweaked, patched and adjusted since they were created. In almost every case, they're designed for use with a mouse and keyboard.

Running a full version of Windows means that the Surface Pro can generally run these apps with little or no modification. Ideally, they might benefit from tweaks to add touch-friendly input options, but they'll run natively on the device.

The same cannot be said for the iPad Pro (or any iPad for that matter). There are work-arounds that can push a desktop app to a mobile device (or to non-Windows platforms) like VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and DaaS (desktop as a service) offerings, but they add their own challenges. They require an active network connection that's reliable and robust. And they require spending on solutions and infrastructure, which can mount up quickly.

The real solution for enterprise apps when it comes to the iPad Pro would be to create versions tailored for iOS. That can mean writing a native iOS app from scratch, creating a web-based interface that works on an iPad, or building a hybrid that installs as a native app but loads content like a web app. All of those options will require money, possibly a very significant investment, and time.

Even if existing apps are going to be phased out, replaced or updated, the Surface Pro's ability to run them during the transition can be a significant reason to consider it over the iPad Pro.

Service and support

Apple products are generally known to offer a lower total cost of ownership when support and service are considered. IBM's recent announcement about how much lower its support needs are for Apple devices is an excellent example. This could be an advantage to Apple in a head-to-head matchup between the iPad Pro and Surface Pro in business.

The exact support costs, however, aren't easy to calculate. While they obviously include help desk support, they also include service or replacement of hardware. Microsoft's recently announced enterprise service program for the Surface Pro could help tilt the equation, though it's difficult to judge at this point since the company has yet to discuss pricing. And Apple's partnership with IBM to provide enterprise apps and support for the iPad could offset that advantage.

User opinion

IT is no longer the sole arbiter of technology decisions in most organization. Trends like BYOD and shadow IT have given managers and end users much more say in the tools they use, even allowing them to buy technology without consulting IT beforehand. Given that reality, user preference in some organizations could be a bigger deciding factor between the two devices than IT preferences.

The iPad Pro requires a greater commitment

For now, the iPad Pro requires a bigger commitment on the part of an IT organization before it can serve as a truly enterprise device. That commitment comes in the form of additional solutions and services, an app strategy tailored to the device, and an effort to rethink existing IT and business processes. Although these challenges make the Surface Pro a more attractive option at the outset, they also serve as opportunities to revisit a company's overall technology strategy, replace aging solutions with newer and more agile options, and engage business users in technology choices. All of these have the potential to deliver profound long-term benefits despite the initial challenges and costs, but they require sustained investment and commitment.

Both Apple and Microsoft have missed opportunities

At the end of the day, both Apple and Microsoft have given up advantages to each other.

Despite offering a range of enterprise capabilities for some time, Apple didn't make a significant push for the enterprise market until recently. Most people see Apple's partnership with IBM as the first major public commitment to iOS as an enterprise platform. Likewise, Apple delayed its entry into the larger tablet or two-in-one device market - a.k.a. the types of tablets that can replace laptops -- long after Microsoft and other companies had launched products.

In contrast, Microsoft moved forward aggressively with business-oriented tablets with Windows 8 and the early Surface models. Those moves included a few missteps, including the ARM-powered devices that weren't capable of running legacy apps.

Although Microsoft moved pretty quickly in that area, it trailed Apple significantly in embracing the mobile arena as a whole. Windows Phone was a radical departure from the earlier Windows Mobile, it initially shipped without major enterprise features, and it has not surprisingly struggled to gain market share. This allowed the iPhone to dominate the enterprise smartphone market and provided a halo effect and toe hold for other Apple products, including the iPad, in business.

Whether the iPad Pro manages to be a hit with business users, either in general or in specific fields like design, remains to be seen. It does seem likely, however, that if Apple had targeted this market a couple of years earlier, it could have had a better shot at edging out some of the competition from Microsoft.

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