Microsoft Surface, iPad Mini Give Small Businesses More Tablet Options

Small businesses considering investments in tablet computers could find the best option in the Surface or widely expected iPad Mini tablet.

Microsoft's latest foray into the tablet market, the Surface, and Apple's compact version of the iPad, widely referred to as the iPad Mini, could expand the field for small businesses looking to increase productivity by introducing more options in the mobile device segment, offering midmarket companies with limited budgets ways to connect with central offices while on the road or in the field.

While the iPad Mini remains as yet unofficially announced, an invite to a media event on Oct. 23 has heightened speculation that Apple is preparing to unveil the device, which would sport a 7.85-inch screen and a lower price point than its bigger brother, which starts at $499 but includes some features such as a high-definition Retina display, which the iPad Mini is expected to lack.

Microsoft finally released the price structure for its Surface tablet this week, with the device, running Windows RT, initially available in three flavors: a 32GB version priced at $499, a 32GB version bundled with a black Touch Cover priced at $599, and a 64GB version bundled with a black Touch Cover priced at $699. The iPad Mini is expected to have a base price of $249, although it remains unclear whether the device will be a WiFi-only tablet or also include 3G wireless connectivity.

The Surface tablet, available for purchase beginning Oct. 26, features WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 technology, a 10.6-inch display with a 1,366 by 768 resolution, two 720p high-definition cameras (front- and rear-facing), full-size USB 2.0, microSDXC card slot, headset jack, HD video-out port and cover port, as well as a Touch Cover, which clicks into the tablet to provide a slim, spill-resistant keyboard for typing. The Touch Cover, which is not bundled with the baseline Surface model, is available for $129. Apple's iPad, although losing market share, thanks to a slew of lower-priced devices running Google Android operating systems, continues to lead overall, and has made a significant impact among small businesses.

In March, a national Business Journals study of small- and midsize-business (SMB) owners indicated how critical the iPad has become to this market segment. The survey found iPad use has nearly quadrupled among SMBs over the past year, growing from 9 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2011, indicating that the iPad is the fastest-growing technology among SMBs. In addition, since the iPad's launch in April 2010, familiarity with the product has reached incredibly high levels in its life span, with 75 percent of SMB owners reporting now being "very or somewhat familiar" with the device. Recent reports suggest SMBs that turn to mobile technologies, such as smartphones and tablets, are seeing positive results.

A survey earlier this month from Harris Interactive and Bank of the West found that while a third of small-business owners have made no investment in mobile technology, well over half who had made an investment saw a positive return. For most of those small-business owners, the return was primarily on target or exceeded their expectations. Sixty-eight percent said that it has increased efficiency for their businesses, and three out of five (61 percent) said it serves functions in their businesses that cannot be completed as efficiently through other means.