Microsoft CEO goes on defensive, says the Surface is ‘a real business’

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer Calling the Shots

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently addressed the companies Surface and the tablet’s sales (or lack thereof).

We’re going to try our best not to characterize his comments as whiny or envision the firm’s leader stomping his foot in the face of gloomy analysis. But it’s hard – real hard.

Speaking with MIT Technology Review, while admitting the Microsoft product was not an iPad-killer, Ballmer stressed the Surface isn’t a post-PC fantasy, either…

“In an environment in which there’s 350 million PCs sold, I don’t think Surface is going to dominate volume,” Ballmer told Cnet during the interview.

This is akin to going out on a limb by admitting winter sunlight will likely be scarce on the U.S. East coast. To use Ballmer’s phrase when commenting years ago on growing usage of Apple’s Safari, the Surface market share is just a rounding-error.

MS surface pro

Never mind sales that are luke-warm at best, or the Surface getting thumbs-down on repairs or the fact the overpriced tablet is underpowered – the tablet is “a real business,” Ballmer said.

So there.

Ballmer also told TechnologyReview the Surface is a long-term play:

I’m super-glad we did Surface. I think it is important – and not just for Microsoft, but for the entire Windows ecosystem – to see integrated hardware and software. 

And the ‘real business’ quote:

Surface is a real business. In an environment in which there’s 350 million PCs sold, I don’t think Surface is going to dominate volume, but it’s a real business.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Surface advertising is still about its keyboard attachment.

Taking a page from Amazon, which never talks hard sales figures regarding the Kindle family, Microsoft has left it to analysts to describe how the Surface performs.

My guess is those descriptions won’t wind up on a warm-and-fuzzy Surface promo. For instance, initial shipments of the Surface RT – launched in October 2012 – likely outnumbered actually sales.

While 1.25 million Microsoft tablets shipped, sales actually hovered around 55 percent to 60 percent of that figure, iHS iSuppli said in January. That means 680,000 to 750,000 Surface units actually initially sold.

Before someone throws a flag on the play, other products have had low initial sales. But the Surface RT had a type of reversal in demand. Turns out people were rushing to return the gadgets.

The Surface Pro – seen as saving Microsoft’s bacon after the RT – wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm, either. As CNET points out, upon the Surface Pro’s initial sales, Microsoft proudly hailed it a success, the tablet selling out.

But that sell out was limited to Microsoft stores. As skeptical journalists are want to do, the site asks whether Microsoft rigged the results by providing a small enough inventory to be sure there was no repeat of the Surface RT launch fiasco.

Even Chairman Bill Gates said he wasn’t satisfied with Microsoft’s innovation, telling Charlie Rose of CBS News his company should do lots more in terms of breakthroughs.

Ballmer and I are two of the most self-critical people – you can imagine. And here were a lot of amazing things that Steve’s leadership got done with the company in the last year. Windows 8 is key to the future, the Surface computer. Bing, people are seeing as a better search product, Xbox.

But is – is it enough? No, he and I are not satisfied that in terms of, you know, breakthrough things, that we’re doing everything possible.

There’s your clip.

Not only can’t Microsoft admit the Surface is a failed example of me-too tablet iPad envy, but in the interview, Ballmer metaphorically positions his company as a Silicon Valley rebel.

The Surface is Microsoft’s James Dean moment after vendors balked at pen-based computing. Which is fittingly ironic, as Dean was best known for the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.”