Surface Tablet Preorders Are an Uncertain Indicator of Future Sales

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-10-17

Surface Tablet Preorders Are an Uncertain Indicator of Future Sales

Microsoft has begun taking preorders for its much-anticipated Surface RT tablet. The new device, which comes with a version of Windows 8 and a limited version of Microsoft Office 2013, will be available in some configurations on Oct. 26. However the most basic version, which come with 32GB of memory and no touch cover, has already sold out, so the earliest you can get one of those is in about three weeks.

The other two versions, the 32GB version with the touch cover and the 64GB version, also with the touch cover, will be available on Oct. 26. While speculation about the price of the Surface has run amok between the announcement and the delivery, Microsoft has finally shared the prices of the Surface. The basic 32GB model will cost $499, which is the same as a WiFi–only iPad with 16GB of memory.

One way to look at this is with the Surface you get twice as much memory for the same price as you do with the iPad. You also get the Microsoft Office Home and Student edition. On the other hand, with the iPad you get a screen with the popular Retina display, which has about twice the resolution as the Surface.

The Surface does give you some other things, including features that have been missing from the iPad since its inception. The most notable of these is ports. This includes a USB port (a real one, not the Apple docking port), a micro SDXC memory card slot and an HD video port. While you can get each of those things with the appropriate iPad accessory, they’re not included when you buy an iPad.

Other things that come with the Surface include stereo speakers (although it’s hard to say just how good the sound is likely to be given the speaker size), two microphones, and a 16:9 aspect ratio display. The tablet weighs about the same as an iPad and it’s about the same size even though the shape is a little different.

One feature that Microsoft includes with its more expensive models is a black touch cover that includes touch-sensitive “keys” to allow easier typing than you get on the touch screen. Note that these aren’t actual keys, but rather defined areas on the inside surface of the cover that look like keys. You can get a cover with actual keys for an extra $120. Note that only the black cover is standard. You can get snazzier colors, but they cost extra.

Surface Tablet Preorders Are an Uncertain Indicator of Future Sales

One criticism that has been leveled against the Surface is that the included preview version of Microsoft Office is licensed only for personal, non-business use. However, if you have a license for Office 365 or Office 2013, then that license extends to the Surface and it can be used for commercial purposes. There’s a link on the pre-order page that tells how to do this.

So the big question, as it has been since the Surface was announced, is will the Surface be a threat to the iPad? Right now that remains to be seen. It appears that the initial sales of the Surface have been brisk, resulting in a three-week wait time. However, we don’t know how many devices were available in the first place. The two more expensive versions of the Surface were still available for the first day of shipping when this column was written.

The Surface RT spec sheet certainly looks impressive. The tablet comes with features you can’t get on the iPad, for example. It has a fast NVidia T30 processor, which may be somewhat faster than what’s in the iPad (again, we won’t know until we test one) and there’s plenty of included software.

Like the iPad, Microsoft restricts the supply of apps to the Microsoft app store. Right now there’s no way to know how many Windows RT apps are actually in the store, or which apps they are. One presumes that when the first Windows RT devices are delivered we’ll find out. This could be a problem for the popularity of the Surface since Apple has built up a vast collection of apps for the iPad ecosystem over the past few years.

On the other hand, since Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 are built on the same code base, it’s also possible that many of those tens of thousands of phone apps will also run on the Surface RT. Right now, we just don’t know. But if history is any indication of the importance of apps to the success of a tablet, just look at the BlackBerry PlayBook which was delivered with few apps and suffered as a consequence. But there is some hope. Microsoft has announced the winners of its app contest and if you watch the video you can also see some of the apps that will come to the Surface.

So we’re back to the big question again. While it’s clear that the Surface is meeting some initial success, will it have the legs it needs to take on the iPad? Probably not initially given the massive ecosystem Apple has built. But over the longer term all we can say is that it depends. Microsoft has come from behind before. Maybe it can do that again.

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