Apple 2.0

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Why Delta ordered 11,000 tablets from Microsoft, not Apple

October 1, 2013: 6:06 PM ET

Pilots may love their iPads, but Delta, like most airlines, is a Microsoft Windows shop.

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FORTUNE -- Many in the tech press reacted with incredulity to the news that Delta Airlines chose Microsoft (MSFT), not Apple (AAPL), to supply its pilots with cockpit tablets -- 11,000 in all.

After all, it's been two years since the iPad was approved for use by American Airlines as a so-called Electronic Flight Bag -- replacing 40 pounds of paper maps and charts.

Microsoft's Surface 2, by contrast, has not yet been approved by the FAA. Moreover, by the company's own admission it wouldn't be fully deployed for two years, by which time Microsoft may have moved on to the Surface 3, if not the Surface 4.

"We fought hard for iPad," a disappointed Delta pilot told AppleInsider's Daniel Eran Dilger, charging that Delta's IT department was "in bed" with Microsoft.

It wouldn't be the first time.

Pressed to explain why his company went with Microsoft over Apple, a Delta spokesman said it boiled down to choosing a device that could be easily integrated into Delta's existing information technology structure, which runs on Microsoft Windows.

That's the story across much of the industry, says Christopher Dean. He's the point person for Jeppesen's FliteDeck Pro, the electronic version of its airline industry-standard "Jepp" charts.

Jeppesen's first digital products were Windows-based, but the company switched to iOS in 2010 when the iPad was released and pilots starting bringing them into the cockpit.

JetBlue pilot with iPad.

JetBlue pilot with iPad.

"I see pilots all around the world who are in love with their iPad," says Dean. "You'd have to peel it out out their hand forcibly."

But there are also a lot of pilots who grew up on Windows and, like Delta's IT managers, have been waiting for a Windows-compatible alternative to the iPad.

The Windows 8 version of FliteDeck Pro is expected to be ready next year. The company also makes a stripped-down Android product, but it has no plans to make the full-fledged FliteDeck Pro for Google's (GOOG) platform.

"The demand for iOS," says Dean, "is just too great."

Although Microsoft has been in the tablet business since 2001, starting with the pen-based Windows Tablet PC, its track record so far has not been great. That includes the Surface RT product unveiled just last year.

"Microsoft had tried to unload its unsold Surface inventory on schools," writes AppleInsider's Dilger, "but even fire sale pricing couldn't move the inventory. Last month, it began dumping the devices on education for free, calling it 'Bing for Schools.'"

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for

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