Ballmer qualifies Surface sales as ‘modest’, but there’s a huge opportunity

For all the talk about the Surface – and we’ve said some nice things about it – Microsoft’s foray into big league tablet computing has been marred with teething problems and lackluster sales. Arriving in a crowded tablet market on October 26, the Surface was praised for its industrial design and build quality as it was panned for its resource-hungry and buggy OS and insufficient third-party software.

The software maker did not release exact sales data and its CEO Steve Ballmer is dogging such questions in absence of a milestone like Apple’s three million tablet sales in three days. In an interview with a French newspaper, Ballmer qualified the beginning of the Surface sales as “modest”, which probably means way worse than expected… reports that Ballmer described initial Surface reception as “modest”. He also confirmed Microsoft sold four million Windows 8 upgrades in the three days following the launch and said that the Intel-based Surface with Windows 8 Pro, which is due soon, will have a higher-resolution screen.

When the Wall Street Journal asked Ballmer about the Surface’s opening weekend reception, he responded:

Numerically there’s not really much that’s interesting to report.

Apple’s boss Tim Cook opined Microsoft made too many trade-offs trying to create a modern touch experience on tablets while at the same time trying to appease to the old types who prefer desktop metaphor and legacy Windows apps.

I think one of the toughest things you do with each product is to make hard tradeoffs, and decide what a product should be. And we’ve really done that with the iPad. And so the user experience is absolutely incredible.

Some have also questioned usability and build quality of the Surface’s Touch and Type covers, with some people complaining on Microsoft’s support forums that the edge which attaches to the tablet comes away, exposing the wiring and requiring replacement.

Not everyone agrees with Cook’s assessment.

AnandTech wrote in its lengthy Surface review:

I don’t believe Surface is perfect, but it’s a platform I can believe in. What I’m most excited about is to see what happens after a second or third rev of the design.

I approve this message.

I can’t help but think critics are grossly mistaken dismissing the Surface all too easily.

Microsoft might just as well be in it for the long haul. That’s how the company beat Sony and Nintendo to the punch with its Xbox console. And even if the Surface is just a ploy to drive Windows 8 adoption, as Acer suggested, it’s already successful even if sales are lacking.

As a reference platform for third-party Windows 8 device makers, the Surface gives Microsoft its own premium tablet brand to compete with Apple, Google and Amazon. Right now, the Surface is a Windows tablet.

To Windows lovers, it’s a reason enough to visit Redmond’s retail stores. To Microsoft, the Surface is an opportunity to keep its core base from defecting to competing platforms by keeping them interested in the Windows ecosystem.

So short-term, Surface may have been a disappointment in terms of units sold. Speaking of its long-term prospect, it’s a first step in the right direction. Should Microsoft continue refining the Surface software and hardware, it’s gonna become a very competitive product, one that’s gonna steal sales from other vendors.

And if the Surface Xbox rumor is true, there’s a lot to look forward from Microsoft’s tablet brand.

Unlike other makers, Microsoft has some unique advantage. The Surface is but an extension of an array of upcoming Windows 8 devices. It provides out-of-the-box compatibility with Office, which is a big deal.

Popular apps will come sooner than later.

All told, Microsoft is admittedly best poised to sell the device to enterprise customers, especially those that rely on Microsoft’s desktop, server and enterprise software.