Solution providers want to sell Microsoft Surface tablets more than they want to sell Apple's iPad but they're frustrated that Microsoft has limited the sale of the Surface to a restricted set of retailers, according to an exclusive study by CRN.
The survey of more than 500 CRN readers revealed that 82 percent of respondents want to sell Surface to their customers and 75 percent believe Surface is a better product for business customers than Apple's iPad.
"If I talk to customers who want Exchange online or they have a remote sales force that wants tablets, I suggest Surface. It's a better solution. We do believe it is a better productivity line than iPad," said Frank Johnson-Suglia, managing partner at Strategic SaaS, an Austin, Texas-based VAR.
"The iPad is great to read your magazines or check your email or watch YouTube videos and play with creativity apps. It's an awesome tool for data consumption," he said. "But you can compare Surface favorably to using a normal laptop. It adds touch functionality and it's fairly affordable."
The CRN survey also showed that readers believe Surface would be a more profitable solution to sell to customers than the iPad. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed said they would be "very profitable" selling Surface solutions and an additional 43 percent said they would be "a little profitable." Meanwhile, 20 percent said they could be "very profitable" selling iPad and 34 percent said they would be "a little profitable."
However, solution providers are unhappy to be missing out on Surface opportunities, the CRN survey showed, with 74 percent of participants disappointed that Microsoft doesn't currently offer Surface through the channel. What's more, 38 percent said their inability to sell Surface now makes them less likely to want to sell it in the future.
Microsoft launched its Surface Windows 8 Pro edition in February after debuting the tablet line with a Windows RT version featuring a mobile ARM processor last fall.
The Surface Windows 8 Pro tablet features full functionality of the Windows 8 OS with access to full business applications including Microsoft Office, according to the company. It features an Intel x86-based Core i5 processor and is available in 64-GB and 128-GB models. Pricing starts at $899 with Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards sold separately for $120 and $130, respectively. Apple's 64-GB iPad with Wi-Fi retails for $699, while the 128-GB version retails for $799.
Surface Windows 8 Pro is currently only available in the U.S. direct from Microsoft and through Best Buy, Staples and Microsoft retail stores.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is taking a "phased approach" to Surface availability, according to a spokesperson. The company hasn't provided a timetable for availability to solution providers. "We look forward to our retail partners sharing their own excitement as Surface expands its retail footprint," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
In January, USB analyst Brent Thill reported that Microsoft had sold only 1 million units of its Surface RT tablet; he had originally projected the company would sell about 2 million during the fourth quarter. He attributed the weaker-than-expected sales to steep competition from Apple but also to Microsoft's limited distribution.
With the Surface only available through Best Buy, Staples and Microsoft itself, solution providers face a tablet quandary: What do they tell customers interested in the Surface? Do they tell them to buy it through retail? Do they steer them toward another vendor's tablet or even toward a different OS? Do they tell them to wait, with the hope that Microsoft opens Surface up to the channel in the not-too-distant future?
These questions become even tougher for solution providers when the vendor in question is one of their top software partners. Many solution providers are discouraged by the situation.
"We're quite frustrated. Customers bring it up to us. They read the press. They see some cool ads, but they ask us because we're their trusted advisers. Do we move in a different direction? Who loses? Microsoft loses," said Lester Keizer, CEO of Business Continuity Technologies, a Las Vegas-based VAR.
Keizer cites a recent conversation with a law firm client that recently won a $4 million case. "Their pockets are burning. They want to spend and Surface came up," Keizer said. "We talked with a school a few weeks ago and they were asking the same thing. They wanted to buy 100 [tablets]."
Eventually, Keizer led the school to the Lenovo Twist, a Windows 8 touch-screen PC in the same class as the Surface that converts from a laptop to tablet by twisting the screen. If the Surface had been available through the channel, the conversation might have gone differently, he said.
"My point is I'm their trusted adviser. They're going to follow what I'm going to say. We've gone through tough economic times the last four years here [in Las Vegas], but there are signs of spring ahead and people want to do a refresh right now. Surface comes up. We tell them the reasons why [we can't sell it] and push it aside," Keizer said.
It pains Keizer to do so. He believes Surface is a strong solution for SMBs and notes that 86 percent of companies in Las Vegas have 50 employees or fewer. But Microsoft has left him with no choice. "If you don't go through the channel, we have to steer them in a different path," he said.
Sam Ruggeri, president of Advanced Vision Technology Group, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based solution provider, was scheduled to meet with Microsoft to learn more about Surface, but said customers are already asking about it.
"It's piquing interest from clients who are more inclined to a tablet scenario," he said. "I don't like any clients being pioneers, so we want to look at it first."
Surface is a perfect road device for writing and editing statements of work or other technical documents, said Strategic SaaS' Johnson-Suglia. "If I didn't have my laptop, I could still sit down and knock them out, do email and other stuff at once. If I need to open or edit Office docs or mess around with SharePoint, it's perfect," he said.
The only big advantage iPad has over Surface is its 3G connectivity on some models, said Johnson-Suglia, who has used both the iPad and Surface. "Other than that, it's useful for spur-of-the-moment productivity needs," he said.
In the CRN survey, 81 percent of respondents said the top reason to sell Surface is a client's existing Microsoft/Windows infrastructure. Twenty-five percent cited strong customer demand and 21 percent said it was a quality product compared to the competition.
In contrast, only 29 percent of solution providers cited existing Apple/iOS infrastructure as a top reason to sell iPads to customers. Sixty-four percent of survey participants said strong customer demand is the No. 1 reason to sell iPad.
Microsoft's decision to limit Surface's distribution could hurt it down the road, the survey indicated. Although 54 percent of respondents said their inability to sell Surface at launch would have no impact on their decision to sell it in the future, the 38 percent that said their inability to sell the tablet now makes them less likely to want to sell it in the future is significant.
"I'd like to be able to resell it but there are other solutions out there. Our job is to drive our clients to the best solutions for them," said Ed Correia, president and CEO of Sagacent Technologies, San Jose, Calif. "It definitely lowers my interest when anybody sells something direct. I look for channel-friendly relationships."
Correia purchased the Windows Surface RT for himself and was so disappointed that he sold it a month later and now uses another vendor's Ultrabook.
"I think the Windows Surface RT version is extremely weak. I felt it wasn't really ready for business," he said. "The Windows Surface Pro running Windows 8 is a pretty good solution for road warriors. But the thing I find is people are getting tablet crazy when in about the same form factor you can get a laptop. I've not yet seen a Surface Pro Windows 8 without the keyboard. It's just a very thin laptop. People are using it as a laptop."
About 64 percent of survey respondents are currently selling tablets. Apple was the top tablet vendor selected by CRN readers, with 46 percent selling iPads. Samsung was the second most popular tablet vendor with 44 percent, followed by Lenovo (39 percent), Hewlett-Packard (31 percent), Asus (32 percent), Dell and Acer (25 percent each).
Interestingly, Microsoft and Apple have done such a good job marketing the Surface and iPad that some customers don't even realize there are alternatives to those two vendors, said Sagacent's Correia.
"Ninety percent of the media is all about Microsoft and Surface. The Microsoft marketing juggernaut is doing quite well," Correia said.
Of all the vendors looking to capitalize on Microsoft being MIA with the Surface in the channel, Lenovo has been the most aggressive, Business Continuity's Keizer said.
"We're getting really good deals. They're giving good spifs for new customers. They're acting in a channel-friendly way and that's something we haven't seen [from Lenovo] the last couple years," he said.
Advanced Vision's Ruggeri said he hopes that Microsoft eventually makes Surface available to VARs. If not, he'll also look at alternative Windows 8 tablets such as the Lenovo Twist.
"More of our clients are looking at tablets and most of us on the VAR side are looking to looking configure, support and deploy the devices. Most clients are not comfortable buying 500 iPads from Apple; they want them from a VAR," he said.
PUBLISHED MARCH 8, 2013