Surface Pro Demand: Don't Believe The Hype

More workers want a Windows tablet than want an iPad, Forrester Research says. This doesn't mean Surface Pro will realign the industry.
Johnson, meanwhile, said the Surface Pro is a solid device but "the question is whether or not it's a good tablet or a good laptop." His comment echoes early reviews, which have included raves but generally characterize the device as a jack of all trades but master of none. For users with specific priorities, Surface Pro will be a hit, but its standout features are unlikely to convert the masses who aren't already riding the Microsoft bandwagon.

Redmond's actions, though, suggest Surface Pro is an evolutionary missing link that encourages OEMs to better optimize their hardware for Windows 8, not a BYOD powerhouse that realigns the market. For example, Microsoft is shipping only 1 million units to start, about a quarter of the number of Surface RTs it initially produced last fall. The company knows that new Ultrabooks equipped with next-generation Intel processers will be able to address some of the design compromises current chips typically require, such as the inclusion of a fan. With more compelling hardware on the way, Surface Pro might not be intended to set an eternal benchmark so much as to stake out territory in anticipation of a later marketplace battle.

Whereas iOS and Android infiltrated the workplace externally via consumers, Schadler said Surface Pro feels like "an enterprise-out" strategy. Many workers might be content enough with simple alternatives, he said, but power users will value Surface Pro and help it to gain market share. "Microsoft has to go after these captive audiences, the ones that can't get away," he stated.

But even if Microsoft isn't banking on a BYOD win, it's still hoping for one. Witness a February 7 blog post by Surface GM Panos Panay. Peppered with phrases like "fun" and "cool," its accessible tone is targeted more at the general high-end user than the enterprise specifically. Panay eschews any business examples but mentions that you can draw amazing pictures with SketchBook Express, for example. Apple's press release for its 128-GB iPad, in contrast, dedicated a bit more lip service to enterprise users. Both were eyebrow-raising shifts in each company's marketing rhetoric.

In many ways, then, Surface Pro is somewhat like the Windows 8 operating system it runs. Whereas consumer tastes can change quickly, enterprises tend to move slowly. Yes, IT's hands have been forced by BYOD but, in terms of company-wide computer and tablet deployments, the mood is still more methodical than reactionary. With iOS, Android and even Chromebooks eating into its business, Microsoft had to show it was prepared for the future while also recognizing that enterprise refresh cycles would limit the immediate reach of its new platform. The result can be seen as an effort to serve legacy users while positioning them for the next generation of devices -- a tricky balance that eyes the long game rather than instant growth. If Surface Pro exceeds expectations, the company will no doubt be thrilled, but otherwise, the device could settle into a temporary strategy of incremental gains.

"I think Microsoft is looking at Windows 8 differently. I don't get the sense it's falling short of internal expectations," said Johnson, who called the OS a "step on a journey ... leading to a more significant revision in the future."