It's too soon to call Microsoft's Surface tablet a failure

As the Surface tablet comes to retail stores, it's time to stop comparing its early sales to those of Apple's iPad.

Just one day after a wealth management firm declared Microsoft was screwing up the potential of its new Surface tablet because of a lack of retail presence, Microsoft has opened the floodgates with new retail outlets.

Now comes the real trick: getting customers to show up.

Investment firm Detwiler Fenton issued an analysis that predicted Microsoft will sell 500,000 to 600,000 Surface tablets by Christmas, well below its previous expectation of one to two million units, and it specifically said the lack of distribution was ‘killing the product.’

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"Mixed reviews and a $499 starting price tag certainly don’t help, but lack of retail exposure at Best Buy [an American appliance store] and others is severely depressing sales," the report said.

To date, Surface had only been available from Microsoft stores and online in the U.S. and is only sold online in the U.K. and Europe. With 65 Microsoft stores in the U.S., that’s not much of an opportunity for potential customers to pick up and play with the thing.

However, things have changed with the announcement that Staples and Best Buy will begin carrying Surface tablets in the coming days before Christmas, as well as sold online. That’s 3,300 new outlets for Surface, 1,900 in Staples and 1,400 in Best Buy.

This gives Surface a badly needed hands-on experience. No one other than a developer or seriously dedicated fanboy will shell out $499 for a product unseen and only Apple can claim that kind of audience.

It’s mighty sketchy timing for this decision, and its cutting it awfully close. Christmas lists are undoubtedly being fulfilled or have been by now. Obviously Microsoft is looking longer term than this Christmas, but, really, if you introduce a product during this time of year, it’s to capitalize on holiday sales. Otherwise, wait until a quieter time, where you can get some media attention.

Surface RT, the current product on the market, is Microsoft’s best chance to gain some ground in the tablet market, because the x86 tablets coming next year will be much higher-priced, from $899 and up.

Microsoft did more than a few things wrong. I think the keyboard should have been included in the price, because that’s its killer feature. And launching during Christmas isn’t very smart. But please, let’s not declare Surface dead just yet, like some people are doing.

In the early 1990s, the music industry was forever corrupted because of three albums: Pearl Jam’s "Ten," Nirvana’s "Nevermind," and Hootie & The Blowfish’s "Cracked Rear View." All three albums were debuts for the respective bands and sold ridiculous amounts of copies: 15 million for Hootie, 10 million for Nirvana and 9 million for Pearl Jam.

It also ruined the industry forever. Expectations were now set for every band that came after them. If you didn’t sell 5 million records right out of the gate, you were declared a failure and dropped. There was no patience anymore for bands that needed three or four records and constant touring to break through, the way established artists like Rush and Aerosmith did it. You were a headliner on your debut album or you were a flop. There was no in-between.

I see the same thing happening now in the technology sector, except Apple is the new Pearl Jam. Every product launch is compared to theirs, and if you don’t sell like an Apple product, you’re a failure.

This, of course, is ludicrous. Apple is an aberration of the highest order in the industry and we only have room for one Apple in the sector. It took the Xbox years to get to where it is through a steady, determined climb. The same will hold for Surface. Declare it a failure in a year or three. Not one month after launch.

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