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Okay, the title is provocative, but with the demise of Netbooks many schools are fumbling around with iPads as the natural successor. I’ve always said wait. I said wait last year to the CEO in Sydney and though pilots are a good thing, the iPad remains to me a ‘near future’ investment, as few IT departments have had time to establish the kind of processes and methods they have with Windows. Slow down, Wall Marts open all night.

Here’s why, and I’ll try to be concise. Apple’s business model is not to network people or schools – it is to connect paying consumers to it’s legion of app-developers. iPads are not designed to work on local networks – classrooms are. iPads deployment is volatile and the owner is a constant hostage to numerous ‘update’ demands. There is this insanity that Apple create workflows – and if you have enough apps you can build a Dreamliner on the train to work. Ahem …

So why the Surface?

  1. It is a real 64bit computer. It runs a nippy i5 processor with 4gb Ram
  2. It’s 10.6 inches, so looks and feels like a MacBook Air not an iPad
  3. It has real ports – microSDXC, USB3.0, Mini Display (HDMI)
  4. It has 128gb storage and a respectable 1920 x 1080 display
  5. It can be on a workgroup!
  6. It can use shared drives, have multiple user accounts and the kind of networking that schools like – student drives, teacher drives – the stuff that schools do well now.
  7. It has a ‘desktop’ and you can install things or image things – so you can fleet manage it without massive changes in work-practice.
  8. It plays Minecraft proper. And Steam, and Warcraft … so it’s going to grind though anything your school will actually allow to be installed.
  9. It has Narrator – which works really well for accessibility.
  10. It has Office – get over it, no school is going to give up Word and One Note anytime soon, and you can still use Dropbox and Google Apps, so don’t cry just yet.
  11. It has front and rear 720p HD cameras – I had it ustreaming and skyping at ver respectable quality, mirrored to a projector (standard classroom spec).
  12. it supports pen input. I know we all have fingers, but pens have proven popular with humans for hundreds of years too.
  13. It uses the metro ‘media’ interace for casual browsing and workflows, which feels way more fluid than iOS and if you are an Xbox user, you’ll know exactly how the system works. OR, press the ‘desktop’ tile and even the most un-interested teacher will recognise the familiar computer desktop.
  14. The 128gb version has 83gb of storage, which is more than enough for a thousand PowerPoints and essays.
  15. The one I’ve been testing has managed 6 hours on battery – enough for the school day!

Now the downside. Apple has provided many eLearning people with a fairly easy new ‘expert’ badge. Knowing about iPads and apps – pulling an off the cuff ‘oh, have you seen’ has enabled them to have a point of difference which they believe sets them apart from the regular Joe. However, most 8 year olds can read and use an iPad too, so I’ve never been impressed with iPad experts unless they’ve actually made an app or had an original idea.

So Apple iPad-ism will popular right now. The RT version of the Surface sold a mere million units in the last quarter of the year. This is due to the iPad compare and issues with Microsoft’s distribution, and early media bagging of the 23gig storage left over after RT was installed. Windows store is a ghost-town and Metro takes some getting used to (unless of course you’ve played an Xbox as millions of people/kids have).

The desktop interface is clunky, not quite useless, but hardly what XP users will be used to in your school. However, Metro boots Office nicely and in our Office no one really complained one they swiped right and booted Word. It was like someone opened the Window (pun) and in came some fresh air. It’s a tablet thats a laptop, but will slave to a desktop monitor and churn out school and university fare all day.

For most schools, the touch cover will be ‘okay’ and is essential to get the most out of the Surface experience. Things feel solid, there are click sounds – which are re-assuring, especially to those we work with who rely on audible feedback when using technology.

It took me a few days to get used to using the keyboard, but I liked it. I liked the Charms bar for navigation and loved the ability to arrange tiles into groups. Tiles being buttons which act as buttons to do things, like open a browser. If you have got an Xbox, Metro feels good and perhaps amplifies the clunky use of the ‘desktop’ interface, where tapping red ‘x’ buttons to close windows feels like a trip down memory lane. But – for those people I showed it to who have not be ‘iPad-ified’ yet, they didn’t say much about it at all. They largely ignored Metro and went back to their XP habits. Fair enough, as long as they use it right?

There are things Microsoft will work on. Apps (which for the most part schools don’t need), Video, Music and Games – which obviously they’d like you to buy as Apple does. However – for IT departments, these things can be disabled and made to go away. Even better if your school has NAS devices for audio and video, just hook into that … so play HD video around the LAN not over the cloud (saves time, money and frustration).

Reviews have said IE10 is sluggish – and of course it’s totally uncool these days. I did some load tests against a Macbook Air (Firefox) and Ipad 3 (Safari) and YouTube videos were marginally slower. However – what I’m saying is YouTube is banned most places, and the more sensible schools are running NAS servers with local streaming these days anyway – so videos are part of that place we called the Library. General websites opened just as fast in my opinion … and those using HTML5 with responsive designs loaded with less hassles than I’ve found on my iPad. So the web was not a slow-painful experience as some reports have suggested in my view.

The cameras do the job. They are not pro-sumer by any means, but for the kind of thing that kids might need them for in labs or assignments, both the video and still worked fine.

The question is – would I buy them for a school? Yes. Schools don’t have the capacity to buy into Apples vending machines in my opinion, and culturally parents and students don’t know how to create the kind of academic workflow needed, in the time eLearning gurus would like them to. I still believe great computing will come from renovating computer labs with decent, high end machines as well as a reformation of the geriatric IST, SDD, IPT and ITVET courses would do wonders.

So yes, I would buy them – despite the $1000 price tag for the 128gb model. Because as someone who’s designed and ran IT systems for 1000 plus kids and teachers on a network, the fact they can be workgrouped, managed and do the kinds of things that get kids though exams (not novelties acts at teach-meets) is the imperative.

I haven’t seen a Chromebook, but have serious reservations about thin-client machines in school or university networks. They never really worked well on a LAN let alone a cloud – and roaming profiles just lagged everything … so to me I still like my data on my network and my machines or use a VPN for teachers who are working at home for data.

More the point, I would not buy iPad minis (cost/desire) or iPads for the $369-$549. To me iPads are a bit like Alfa Romeos in the 80s. On a good day they are brilliant, but most of the time, you’re spending time and money maintaining them. There’s nothing more annoying in modern life than Apple’s relentless demands for passwords, syncing (most people wipe more than they transfer) and of course massive updates which progressively render the device with arthritis.

The CLOUD belongs to corporations – and subject to capture, abduction, outages and costs. To me the Surface presents somewhat of a hybrid device, which I could see lasting for the kind of time a school now needs – due to the end of IT funding. It also means that I could run intranets with HTML5 apps that will work to do all sorts of trick things to make kids and teacher lives easier. Yes Metro is ‘cloud’ ambitious, but the fact it’s not there yet actually feels okay to me.

The reality is that right now Apple is ‘cool’ and Windows is not. However Xbox is cool and as a first release, the have many aspects of legacy systems and infrastructure that can be more realistically handled by current IT departments. I realise many iPad advocates live in the ‘near future’ so to them the Surface will appear less – but I think different doesn’t mean less. I guess that’s why no ones asking me to design school networks … the crazy fools … designing a device for learning is like looking at the Harbour Bridge for a distance of three inches.

So 15 arguments for the Surface … and as iPads are not in schools to the kind of ‘spin’ the near-futurists claim … it might just be with more frugal times ahead, some clever school network managers might just find them just the thing to stop the tail wagging the dog.

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