By Barry Levine / Mobile Tech Today. Updated November 12, 2012.
Microsoft's new tablet, Surface, is a key piece of the company's strategy to gain a foothold in that booming category. But there are now indications that Surface is getting off to a slow start.
CEO Steve Ballmer recently admitted to a French newspaper, Le Parisien, that sales of the ARM-based Windows RT device have started slowly. "We've had a modest start because Surface is only available on our online retail sites and a few Microsoft stores in the United States," he said. Ballmer also pointed to the coming release in January of the Intel-based Windows 8 Surface Pro tablet.
The limited number of outlets appears to have been further complicated by a shortage of the 32 GB version shortly after the product's release on Oct. 26.
There have also been consumer complaints that the Touch keyboard cover can literally fall apart at the seam.
For instance, a user named Brian_g posted recently on Microsoft's Surface forum that "my Touch cover, in the middle at the joint to the screen, is peeling, like the top layer has come loose and is ruffling up." Another commenter wrote that his Surface's keyboard, "right in the middle on the seam," tore open.
While the keyboard cover is a differentiator, another differentiator may help Surface sales, although it may take awhile to sink in. Apple's iPad is the main target for Surface, but the two approach tabletness from different directions.
The iPad was first positioned as a content consumption device, designed primarily for surfing the Web, watching videos, listening to audio and the like. Surface, on the other hand, is more geared toward productivity, with a keyboard in the cover and a full-featured Microsoft Office.
However, Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, pointed out that Office is "about all it can run right now," since there are relatively few other tablet-specific, RT-based apps available at the moment.
Windows 8 Tablets
Greengart told us he has watched the reaction at "several pop-up Surface stores in malls," and there appeared to be an interest in the new device from a broad range of people.
But, after whetting people's appetite for productivity with a keyboard and Office, he said, the product's appeal slams into the lack of new software and its inability to run older Windows software. He also pointed out that the tablet "isn't cheap," starting at $499 without a keyboard and $599 with one.
When asked if he expects sales for Surface with Windows RT to pick up, Greengart said "not really." He noted that developers were given "a tremendous headstart" to create apps for the ARM-based tablet, and, at this rate, it will "take a long time, if ever, to catch up" with the number and diversity of iPad apps.
Greengart is more sanguine about the prospects for the Windows 8, Intel-based Surface, which he said will likely be used by companies as a laptop replacement.