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Steven Sinofsky's sudden exit this week.
Here's the background. Microsoft unveiled Surface earlier this year, revealing two versions. Surface RT, which runs Windows RT and shipped on Oct. 26, and Surface Pro, based on Windows 8 Professional. Windows RT is a Windows 8 derivative designed for consumer tablets. All Windows RT tablets are powered by ARM chips, and are designed to be light and long on battery life. The downside: They won't run regular Windows applications and are incompatible with many Microsoft security and management tools, including Active Directory.
That's where Surface Pro comes in, or was supposed to. It runs full-blown Windows 8, and was intended for business users and others who want legacy application support and compatibility with corporate IT environments. It's powered by Intel's Core i5 x86 chip. It promises full support for legacy Windows software and Microsoft's back-end admin, security and cloud tools.
[ What does the future hold for Microsoft? Read Watch For Microsoft To Acquire Nokia, Nvidia. ]
So which version of Surface is Microsoft currently pitching to businesses? If you guessed Surface Pro, you'd be wrong. Sources tell me company reps are pushing Surface RT to enterprise accounts because, frankly, they have no clue when Surface Pro will be ready.
A Microsoft spokesperson I contacted on Wednesday would say only that the tablet will be available within 70 days, which could put its release into next year. Microsoft isn't saying what's causing the delay. Other Windows 8 systems that run Intel's Core chips have already hit the market.
Not surprisingly, enterprise buyers aren't interested in Surface RT. "What the hell are we going to do with it?" said one source I talked to. The source works at a major financial institution, where Microsoft reps recently pitched Surface RT. "You can only run them in an unmanaged environment -- we'd have to be crazy" to use them, my source said.
There's another mess on the Windows 8 tablet front. Computer makers that developed systems based on Intel's new Clover Trail Atom platform are also scrambling. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and others have announced Clover Trail-based tablets. But try and get any of them to commit to a specific ship date. I faux-ordered Dell's Latitude 10 Windows 8 tablet and received a "preliminary" date of Dec. 12.
The problem is Clover Trail. Intel just doesn't have it ready for mass production. Insiders say that, among other things, there's a problem with the chip's power management software. Intel ignored my request for a comment yesterday.
Most of these OEMs were smart enough to hedge their bets on Clover Trail, and also built Windows 8 tablets and convertibles that run Intel's proven Core architecture. I tested Dell's Ivy Bridge Core-based XPS 12 during Hurricane Sandy -- it stood up to the storm.
But the whole point of Clover Trail was that it was supposed to provide the Wintel ecosystem with a platform that could match ARM-based Android tablets and the iPad on power consumption, battery life and instant on/off, while still running Windows applications. Now it appears Clover Trail systems might not arrive in time for the crucial holiday shopping season.
Lest Microsoft try to claim it was never its intention to have Surface RT systems compete with Surface Pro and Clover Trail-based OEM tablets simultaneously, here's a quote from the company's Building Windows 8 blog, published on Feb 9. 2012. "Our collective goal is for PC makers to ship WOA PCs [i.e. Surface RT and other systems that run Windows on ARM] the same time as new PCs designed for Windows 8 on x86/64, using the latest generation of those platforms from low-power [i.e. Clover Trail] to high-performance [i.e. Core]."
Who authored that piece? It was none other than Sinofsky, who in making unkept promises may also have authored his own hasty exit from Microsoft. Ironically, his words were meant more as an assurance that development of the brand new Windows on ARM platform would keep pace with development of Intel-based systems, not vice versa.
Microsoft will undoubtedly insist otherwise, but there's a quiet little disaster in the making for the company and its partners.
Update (12:35 p.m.): Many readers have pointed out in the comments that Microsoft previously stated that Surface Pro would ship 90 days after Surface RT, and thus are taking issue with my use of the word "delay."
Microsoft did state that, in June. But, as I pointed out, Steven Sinofsky said in February that the company's goal was to have Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT systems ship "simultaneously."
So at some point between February and June Microsoft decided to delay the launch of Surface Pro until after that of Surface RT. Whether for technical or business reasons (perhaps to appease OEM partners), I stand by my point that the decision is creating disarray and confusion at retail and in the channel, and has the company's own enterprise salespeople scrambling to fill the void because, as of Nov. 15, there is still no specific launch date for Surface Pro.