Microsoft reported in July that its Surface RT and Surface Pro, which respectively debuted in November and February, had only $853 million in revenue combined. Apple, in contrast, needed only three days last November to sell three million iPads, and it sold 14.6 million in its most recent fiscal quarter.
Given these challenges, it might seem counterintuitive for Microsoft to expand a product line it's already struggling to sell. It might be better to shore up the existing lineup before burning through the extra R&D, factory and advertising money that additional models would entail.
[ Where does Microsoft's struggling tablet fit in? Read Why Schools Could Save Windows RT. ]
Then again, if the current tablets' respective market positions aren't working, a shake-up might be precisely what the Surface brand needs. Here are three reasons Microsoft should make three different Surface tablets.
1. Three tablets would provide an entry point and an upgrade path.
When Microsoft first priced its Surface tablets, it made a colossal miscalculation, assuming that it could simply follow Apple into the high-margin device business. If Microsoft had released a tablet three years ago, perhaps this plan would have worked. But Microsoft was late to the game and Apple has an entrenched user base in the premium market. Consequently, Microsoft needs to follow something more akin to the Android model: produce budget-friendly flagship products that increase adoption and funnel users toward the costlier, more profitable devices. Three Surface models would allow Microsoft to pursue this sort of strategy.
From a components standpoint, a 7-inch Surface RT tablet with a Qualcomm chip shouldn't cost much more to produce than the Nexus 7. If Google can afford to price the Nexus 7 at $199, then Microsoft can certainly aim for similar build quality at a similar price. The Snapdragon chip should provide LTE support, allowing Microsoft to produce an ultra-mobile tablet that better highlights the company's cloud-based assets, such as SkyDrive and Bing apps. Support for Office, including Outlook, meanwhile means the device could be useful not only for content consumption but also as a BYOD companion device.
If the price is right, Microsoft could significantly boost Windows RT adoption, which would in turn lead to increased developer investment in the Modern UI. More developer activity would send benefits rippling across the entire Windows 8 ecosystem.
A second Surface RT model could provide both a bigger, nicer screen and an upgrade path for those who like the smaller RT model but need a device that's more suitable for heavier Microsoft Office tasks. It's hard to know how much demand there is for this sort of device, given that some Atom-based Windows 8 tablets could soon cost as little as $300. Unlike Window RT models, Atom-fueled machines can run desktop apps.
Nevertheless, if Microsoft can boost adoption with a low-cost RT model, it could at least buy itself the flexibility to continue developing larger more, capable RT devices.
The Surface Pro, meanwhile, will eventually gain a Haswell chip, leaving it as a premium model with long battery life and the ability to run x86 apps.
Thanks to Microsoft's cloud investments, the devices should sync well together, which could encourage some users to own multiple Surface tablets, and to use them in tandem.