Surface Pro Demand: Don't Believe The Hype

Feb 08, 2013 (08:02 AM EST)

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Headlines over the last week have been abuzz with claims that 200 million global workers are clamoring for a Windows 8 tablet, if not for a Surface Pro in particular. The figure is an extrapolation of data collected for Forrester's 2013 Mobile Workforce Adoption Trends, which surveyed almost 10,000 information workers in 16 countries and found that 32% of respondents want Windows running on their next work tablet.

The figure easily outpaces the proportion of people who said they want an iPad (26%) or an Android device (12%). It has prompted speculation that Microsoft is pushing enterprise mobility across a new Rubicon, one defined by not only touchscreens and thin form factors but also true multitasking, legacy application support and laptop-level computing power. Does this demand mean that Surface Pros will fly off the shelves when they go on sale this weekend, restoring Microsoft to its place atop OS world and erasing memories of the lackluster Surface RT launch?

Probably not.

To be clear, Surface Pro isn't likely to flop either. But there's little evidence that Redmond's new device will achieve more than a modest launch, let alone turn tides industry-wide. Notably, Forrester's numbers were collected in September and October -- before either Windows 8 or Surface RT were commercially available. Microsoft has since sold 60 million Windows 8 licenses but failed to galvanize Ultrabook sales or position its Surface RT as a BYOD favorite. Given these developments, it's conceivable that Forrester's respondents liked the concept of a Windows 8 tablet in theory but lost enthusiasm as they investigated actual options.

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In an interview, Forrester analyst Ted Schadler said it's possible demand for a Windows 8 tablet has declined and acknowledged that Surface Pro might not be the device survey respondents envisioned. He countered, however, that the "main point is that people thought and likely still think that Microsoft is a contender in tablets." This point is valid; Redmond certainly has the reputation and resources to inspire anticipation and confidence among would-be tablet buyers. The question, though, is whether Surface Pro will be the device that actually translates these sentiments into sales.

Forrester analyst Dave Johnson said in a phone conversation that the outcome is unclear. Since the firm conducted its study, "interest has muted a little bit," he stated, elaborating that that current Windows 8 hardware, including Surface Pro, has not satisfied the hopes of many potential purchasers.

Then again, iPads don't fully address user wants, either. Just as iOS has features that compensate for its shortcomings, Surface Pro likewise has the goods to win fans. In an interview, Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering said the device will play into "pent-up demand in the enterprise to extend the life of legacy systems while at the same time taking advantage of increased portability, multi-touch pen input and a more modern interface." She remarked that Surface Pro can run the full Office suite, which is unavailable for iOS and Android and available in only a limited version on Windows RT. Fiering also noted Surface Pro's appealing ability to integrate into existing IT architectures. Even so, she said the device faces challenges in conquering the enterprise simply because so many businesses are still amortizing their Windows 7 investments. "A lot of IT departments are exhausted from the Windows 7 migration," she stated. "They're not quite ready to do it again."

Johnson, meanwhile, said the Surface Pro is a solid device but "the question is whether or not it's a good tablet or a good laptop." His comment echoes early reviews, which have included raves but generally characterize the device as a jack of all trades but master of none. For users with specific priorities, Surface Pro will be a hit, but its standout features are unlikely to convert the masses who aren't already riding the Microsoft bandwagon.

Redmond's actions, though, suggest Surface Pro is an evolutionary missing link that encourages OEMs to better optimize their hardware for Windows 8, not a BYOD powerhouse that realigns the market. For example, Microsoft is shipping only 1 million units to start, about a quarter of the number of Surface RTs it initially produced last fall. The company knows that new Ultrabooks equipped with next-generation Intel processers will be able to address some of the design compromises current chips typically require, such as the inclusion of a fan. With more compelling hardware on the way, Surface Pro might not be intended to set an eternal benchmark so much as to stake out territory in anticipation of a later marketplace battle.

Whereas iOS and Android infiltrated the workplace externally via consumers, Schadler said Surface Pro feels like "an enterprise-out" strategy. Many workers might be content enough with simple alternatives, he said, but power users will value Surface Pro and help it to gain market share. "Microsoft has to go after these captive audiences, the ones that can't get away," he stated.

But even if Microsoft isn't banking on a BYOD win, it's still hoping for one. Witness a February 7 blog post by Surface GM Panos Panay. Peppered with phrases like "fun" and "cool," its accessible tone is targeted more at the general high-end user than the enterprise specifically. Panay eschews any business examples but mentions that you can draw amazing pictures with SketchBook Express, for example. Apple's press release for its 128-GB iPad, in contrast, dedicated a bit more lip service to enterprise users. Both were eyebrow-raising shifts in each company's marketing rhetoric.

In many ways, then, Surface Pro is somewhat like the Windows 8 operating system it runs. Whereas consumer tastes can change quickly, enterprises tend to move slowly. Yes, IT's hands have been forced by BYOD but, in terms of company-wide computer and tablet deployments, the mood is still more methodical than reactionary. With iOS, Android and even Chromebooks eating into its business, Microsoft had to show it was prepared for the future while also recognizing that enterprise refresh cycles would limit the immediate reach of its new platform. The result can be seen as an effort to serve legacy users while positioning them for the next generation of devices -- a tricky balance that eyes the long game rather than instant growth. If Surface Pro exceeds expectations, the company will no doubt be thrilled, but otherwise, the device could settle into a temporary strategy of incremental gains.

"I think Microsoft is looking at Windows 8 differently. I don't get the sense it's falling short of internal expectations," said Johnson, who called the OS a "step on a journey ... leading to a more significant revision in the future."