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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

Yet some long-serving analysts see the inroads of tablets onto laptop turf as inevitable, and feel Microsoft's idea has merit.

"Maybe it's best to think about [the Surface Pro 3] as where the next replacement cycle for PCs will go, and how something like it gives companies an upgrade path for their [current] laptops and PCs," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, in an interview last week.

Not that the Surface Pro 3 is necessarily the Grail. Sameer Singh of Tech-Thoughts put it in stark terms. "The challenge for tablets is to move upmarket into productivity use cases without compromising on their advantages over PCs — 1) ease of use, and 2) lower price points," Singh wrote last week. "With the Windows 8 operating system and a price tag starting at $930 (including the keyboard cover), the Surface Pro 3 misses on both points."

And the movement, if there is to be one, will be slow, an accretion, not a fast flip from tablet and notebook to tablet is notebook. In March, IDC forecast a long slog. For 2014, IDC said, the 2-in-1 category would account for just over 10 million units, or about 3% of all tablet shipments, equivalent to around 4% of all PCs. Even by 2018, 2-in-1s will comprise just 8% of all tablets, less than 11% of all personal computers.

And in January, Gartner said only one in eight consumers — or about 12.5% — claimed that they'd replace their laptop with a tablet.

Apple, the putative aim of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, hasn't warmed to the idea either. While rumors continue to swirl of a larger iPad with a split-screen, and analysts have prognosticated that as tablet sales flag, Cupertino will see the advantage in going upmarket into tablet productivity, much of the latter may be just wishful thinking. Apple has a habit of not doing what experts and pundits believe it should.

It's true that Apple CEO Tim Cook has silenced his criticisms of the flaws of 2-in-1s — the last time he disparaged them was October 2012, when he likened them to a "car that flies and floats." But there's no proof that the company will soon impinge on its MacBook Air, a true notebook, with a hybrid — its professed acceptance of cannibalization notwithstanding.

The easy explanation is that Apple, which has a better track record than Microsoft in creating new categories, sees no need at the moment to replace notebooks. A corollary is that, as it has before, Apple will wait until it judges the time is right.

When will that be? Unknown. But the bet is that Microsoft has again come to the party with a flawed product at an unacceptable price. And in its attempt to be early, to quell the chatter that it's usually late, it will pay for being too early. Just as it has in the past.


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