Though already widely available to consumers in the retail market, the tablets have been extended to the business channel more slowly and methodically. With the new additions, Microsoft could be ramping up its enterprise and institutional efforts at the right time. The company will release Windows 8.1 on October 17 and will stop supporting Windows XP less than six months later. Microsoft hopes XP users will upgrade not only to the new OS, but also to new hardware -- such as its Surface tablets.
The new territories are mostly in Europe, and they follow an initial Surface rollout to 10 U.S.-based channel partners in July.
In an interview, director of Surface marketing Cyril Belikoff said commercial customers want to purchase equipment from hardware providers with which they're already working. He noted that channel resellers can package devices with additional services that IT staffs want, such as asset tagging, custom imagining, onsite service and support, data protection and hardware recycling.
[ Mobile technology is growing fast in emerging economies. Read more at: Mobile Strategy In Emerging Markets: 10 Tips. ]
The 17 new markets also expand Microsoft's AppsForSurface program, which was announced in July and provides select software vendors with tools and funding to produce line-of-business apps for Windows 8's Modern UI.
The Surface tablets have fared poorly among consumers. Microsoft recently slashed the prices of both tablets in hopes of spurring user interest, but even if that strategy is successful, the progress will come at a price. The company has already announced nearly $1 billion in write-down costs related to the Surface RT's price reduction, for instance.
The tablets have also become emblematic of Microsoft's larger struggles, which include Windows 8's sluggish adoption, along with the logistic challenges implied by CEO Steve Ballmer's reorganization plans, intended to unify the company's efforts and product lines around a single vision.
Despite the setbacks, Microsoft has several reasons to hope businesses will be more receptive to its Surface tablets. For one thing, both devices can double, to varying extents, as laptops. Several schools have already begun deploying Windows tablets because of their ability to mesh mobility with desktop-style productivity. These traits enable use cases for which older, less mobile computers were not well suited. They also lower costs because deploying tablets to students and staff can be less expensive than deploying laptops.
The DEA cited a similar value proposition when it announced trials with a Windows tablet. Microsoft hopes more businesses will embrace this kind of thinking as they begin to consider post-XP hardware upgrades.
The company has also pinned hopes to Windows 8.1. For commercial users, the update could appeal due to UI tweaks, such as the ability to boot directly to the desktop, as well as a number of enterprise-oriented features, such as hassle-free VPNs.
Belikoff said Windows RT 8.1 could rehabilitate the Surface RT's image. The device already has access to non-commercial versions of several Microsoft Office applications, but unlike the Surface Pro, the Surface RT cannot otherwise support legacy desktop software. Windows RT 8.1 will deliver a number of enhanced IT controls and access to Microsoft Outlook, among other new features.
The response to Windows RT 8.1 has been very good, according to Belikoff. "It allows us to turn around a lot of perceptions about the viability of Surface RT in business. Without those [new] features, it might have been tough."
Though Microsoft is pushing Surface's commercial prospects, at least some of company's channel partners have expressed dissatisfaction with Microsoft's pace. Microsoft's Surface rollout includes only select distributors and resellers, all of which have been picked on the basis of their experience selling tablets, location, scale and additional services. These criteria have left some partners impatient for their chance to sell Surface products and skeptical of Microsoft's overall device strategy.
Belikoff said Microsoft would announce additional partners in coming weeks. He also explained why the Surface's channel expansion has occurred at such a deliberate pace. "We really have to be thoughtful," he said, adding that Microsoft is moving fast to get Surface products into as many markets as possible but that the process is "not as simple as flicking the lights on."
He said Microsoft must work with channel partners on operational, service and training components to ensure that the experience for the customers is a good one -- a process that requires time and refinement. "We're making sure we're listening and learning," Belikoff said, adding that the new markets demonstrate Microsoft is committed to the Surface business.
The full roster of new markets includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.