Microsoft CEO Ballmer Says Surface Was A Response To Apple iPad, OEMs' Lackluster Tablets


As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer prepares to leave the company after a 33-year career, he's not couching the fact that Surface tablets were motivated by Microsoft's desire to show the world it could make a better tablet than Apple's iPad.

In a November interview with renowned Microsoft blogger Mary Jo Foley, which ZDNet published on Tuesday, Ballmer said Microsoft felt like it had to make its own tablet, even though doing so put longstanding OEM partnerships at risk.

"I was concerned that we had areas of vulnerability in competing with Apple and without any [first-party] capability, that we were not transacting that well just through our OEM partners," Ballmer said in the ZDNet interview.

[Related: Microsoft CEO Drama Intensifies As VMware, Qualcomm Execs Surface As Candidates]

Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft wasn't super confident about the way OEMs had been addressing the high end of the tablet market that Apple has occupied since releasing the first-generation iPad in 2010. He told ZDNet that Surface isn't Microsoft's attempt to copy the iPad, but to " do our own thing that was uniquely ours."

Andrew Brust, CEO of Microsoft-focused research firm Blue Badge Insights, New York, told CRN he thinks Surface has prompted Microsoft's OEM partners to step up their tablet game.

"I don't think we'd have OEM tablets like the Dell Venue 8 Pro, the Nokia 2520, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 or the [rumored] ASUS VivoTab Note 8 if Microsoft hadn't gone to market with Surface," Brust said in an email.

Surface tablets put "both positive and negative pressure" on OEMs, according to Brust.

"On the negative side, OEMs knew they'd lose sales unless they made competitive devices," Brust said. "On the positive side, they got to see the potential for the Windows 8 platform on a superior device, without having to build it themselves."

Ballmer, who famously trashed the iPhone when Apple launched it in 2007, has had Apple on the brain for years. When it became clear that the iPad would be a hit, Ballmer claimed the tablet was really just another type of PC.

In an interview with CRN last July a few weeks after Microsoft unveiled Surface, Ballmer made it clear that first-party devices were part of its mission to take Apple down a notch.

"We are not going to let any piece of this [market go uncontested]," Ballmer told CRN at the time. "Not the consumer cloud. Not hardware software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen. Not on our watch."

Microsoft's first round of Surface tablets didn't do so hot, but the Surface 2 models appear to be selling well. Will they take a bite out of Apple iPad sales? We'll have to see about that, but this will certainly be a goal for Microsoft's next CEO.

PUBLISHED DEC. 18, 2013