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Perspective: The Surface Pro is Microsoft's latest premature introduction problem

Gregg Keizer | May 28, 2014
Spurred to get ahead of the curve, Microsoft argues for a tablet that replaces the notebook; but there's little evidence that's what customers want right now

"We're not interested in competing with our OEMs when it comes to hardware," said CEO Satya Nadella at the Surface Pro 3 event.

Whether the Surface Pro 3 can cannibalize sales of Apple's top-tier, top-priced laptops — the Air in particular, but also the MacBook Pro — is an unknown, although at first glance it seems unlikely that Mac owners can be convinced to desert. More likely, OEMs selling premium-priced Windows notebooks watched the webcast last week and, for all of Nadella's words, were anxious or angry or both as their operating system provider intruded into their territory even more brazenly than before.

"Our goal is to create new categories and spark new demand for our entire ecosystem," Nadella continued. "That's what inspires us and motivates us with what we are doing in our devices and hardware."

Earlier in the century came new categories, like the smartwatches and slates and smartphones. Now, for Microsoft, it's tablets that replace laptops.

But there's no evidence that more than a small fraction of computer and tablet users want anything to do with the tablet-as-laptop category at the moment. The constant drumbeat by analysts who count and research firms that survey has been that tablets are perceived, and then used, as companions to traditional personal computers — not as replacements.

Panos himself, citing some proprietary research, claimed that 96% of those who own an iPad also own a notebook, a telling statistic that doesn't, as he meant to suggest, mean that those 96% want to ditch either one, much less both, for a 2-in-1. Instead, it plays to the idea that most people want separate devices.

Tablets have sold in the quantities they have, not because they can replace a PC, but because they simplify some of the tasks once possible only on a PC.

Most people did not shove their PCs or Macs into the attic as soon as they bought a tablet. Rather, they decided a tablet was better, simpler to use or more convenient for some chores — like reading an e-book, watching a movie or TV show, browsing the Web — than they had once done on a PC. Their tablets were usable in places a laptop was at best inconvenient, like bedrooms or couches or even bathrooms.

So the PC — the smarter tool for a whole long list of tasks like writing or crunching numbers or finessing photos — stayed in place for longer, stationary sessions. For every fringe example of someone who said they spent 100% of their computing time on a tablet, there were thousands who split the difference between a tablet and laptop.

Even those who have resisted tablets understand that the devices do not replace a personal computer. According to a poll by Kantar, of those who have not yet bought a tablet, only 20% said that a lack of a keyboard — the defining component of Microsoft's tablet-is-notebook concept — was among their reasons. More important, they said, was the added expense, and for 72%, it was their belief that a tablet was unnecessary because they were happy with their current PC.


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