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Microsoft’s recently-announced 12-inch Surface Pro 3 offers a challenge to IT managers: Is it really a tablet that can replace laptops, as the company boasts?

Or, as Gregg Keizer argues on ComputerWorld U.S., is it another example of Microsoft announcing a product too early?

Any number of technology companies hope to beat competitors to the market with hardware and software, only to see their efforts disappear in red ink. Think of Apple’s Newton personal digital assistant, which suffered from heavy weight and couldn’t compete with the Palm organizer – which itself was swamped by smart phones.

For some Microsoft is known for copying innovation – for example, Windows – rather than leading. But as Keizer points out, it has led with a number of products, too, such as smart watches that were too early to market.

So what are we to make of the Surface Pro 3, particularly in an era when organizations are giving more choice to staff on bringing their own mobile devices to work?

True it can be powerful, with some models sporting Intel i7 processors. But Keizer quotes a Microsoft executive citing research that 96 per cent of Apple iPad owners also own a notebook. They have the choice of buying a Bluetooth keyboard for their iPad and using it for everything. They prefer separate devices.

In the workplace, we can see this. Mobile workers carry tablets if they feel all they need in a computing device is a big screen for email and accessing the Web. Need to use a spreadsheet or database? Bring out the laptop.

The article quotes an analyst who makes the point differently. “The challenge for tablets is to move upmarket into productivity use cases without compromising on their advantages over PCs — 1) ease of use, and 2) lower price points,” Singh wrote last week. “With the Windows 8 operating system and a price tag starting at US$930 (including the keyboard cover), the Surface Pro 3 misses on both points.”

The contest over so-called 2-in-ones has only just started, so for the time being IT managers are going to have to deal with another device. Fortunately, it has a familiar operating system.

Meanwhile ArsTechica.com has reviewed the Surface Pro 3 and says “as a piece of engineering, the Surface Pro 3 is spectacular.” But, it adds, there’s only one USB 3 port, and the integrated kickstand doesn’t do well for those who have to use the device on their legs because a desk isn’t around.

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