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Microsoft’s sales model for Surface tablets is unfriendly to enterprises

Want a Surface? Shop online or drive to a Windows Store, Ballmer says.

Large corporations eager to buy Microsoft Surface tablets shouldn’t expect much help from Microsoft, at least initially.

It seems the company is just trying to get the product out the door by the October ship date that CEO Steve Ballmer promised this week at the Microsoft Worldwide Partners Conference in Toronto.

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The entities that would normally sell to enterprises – VARS, wholesalers, resellers, distributors, systems integrators - won’t get any special treatment when trying to place orders for the devices, Ballmer says in an interview he gave to CRN.

So like anybody else trying to buy the tablets, corporations will either have to go to a brick-and-mortar Microsoft Store or shop online at Microsoft.com, neither of which is the way typical corporations would normally go about buying PCs in bulk.

Here’s how CRN describes the plan: “Ballmer said Microsoft’s initial emphasis was to put ‘one foot in front of the other’ and get the product ‘out the door.’” This doesn’t indicate a fast start for the tablets, which look slick and are tuned to the touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system, also launching in October.

The situation is kind of a kick in the teeth to its partners that might want to sell some of the devices and who might expect Microsoft to wholesale them via a separate ordering channel. Here’s how Ballmer says it will go for resellers, according to the CRN interview:

“But, if a partner says, ‘Hey look I want to sell some of these things. I want to put them in solutions,’ they can order some off Microsoft.com and sell them. There is nothing that gets in the way of that. But, we have not set up what I would call industrial distribution as sort of a first element. We may get there. But, if a partner wants to order some and put them in a solution with the customer, we’ll be excited to see that happen.”

Presumably most of the Surface tablets will be sold online, given that only 20 Microsoft stores are up and running, with another dozen are “coming soon” the store Web site says. And you can sell a lot of tablets online as Amazon.com has proven with its Kindle Fire.

Microsoft may have to settle for a slow start because it faces challenges of getting its manufacturing in place, not a trivial task for a company that makes very few hardware devices.

One report by DigiTimes  says production issues with Surface chassis and cases could contribute to the slow start. Regardless, gearing up to manufacture a new PC has got to be fraught with problems and it may make sense to start slowly.

Ballmer gave the partners conference a vague sales projection for Surface tablets. “We may sell a few million,” he says, without specifying over what period of time. For its part, Apple sold 3 million of its original iPad in the first 80 days it was available.

The Surface 8 Pro has plenty of horsepower for corporate desktop use if docked, but it looks like it will be a while before Microsoft makes it easy to buy them in bulk.

Maybe Microsoft doesn't want to sell Surface tablets to enterprises. Maybe it wants to take on the iPad as a consumer device and have them sneak into the enterprise via BYOD. If that's the case, the current sales model may work.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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