Ballmer: Surface Tablet Not A Publicity Stunt

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told CRN that the company’s new Surface tablet is anything but a publicity stunt.

’It is not a publicity stunt,’ said Ballmer responding to a question on whether the Surface tablet was designed simply to promote Windows 8 and could eventually be pulled from the market. ’I mean, it is a real piece of hardware that real blood, sweat and tears [went into], and engineering excellence and innovation and creativity and capital. We are in. We are also in with our [hardware OEM] partners, but we are in.’

[Related: Exclusive: Microsoft's Ballmer Throws Down Gauntlet Against Apple ]

Stan Shih, founder of Acer, one of Microsoft's tablet OEM partners, said Microsoft's Surface tablets were developed solely to create interest in Windows 8 as a tablet platform and that the company would not offer more models after that purpose is realized, according to a report in DigiTimes after Surface was unveiled.

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Ballmer would not comment on how big an investment the company made to get Surface off the ground or exactly how long the company has been working on the product. ’It was a while ago,’ he said when asked when the highly-secretive Surface project was launched.

’I know there is a desire to paint things dramatically,’ he said in an interview Monday at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto. ’But of course there are many decisions. There is the decision to start. There is decisions to proceed. There are decisions to make commitments to hardware partners, to suppliers. There is the decision to make an announcement.’

Ballmer said the Surface project involved a relatively small team with even the large Microsoft Windows team ’mostly in the dark with a couple of exceptions.’ One of the objectives from the start, he said, was ’privacy and secrecy in order to really have a chance to do it right.’ Through it all, Ballmer said, he and the Microsoft board were kept up to date on the project.

Microsoft is introducing two tablet products: Surface for Windows RT, a consumer tablet running Windows 8 on ARM microprocessors that Microsoft expects to be used in the workplace, and Surface for Windows 8 Pro, an Intel Core-based tablet that runs the edition of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system for business professionals.

’Right now we are focused on executing well this first phase, which is to ship the Surface RT along with Windows 8 in October,’ said Ballmer. ’We said it would be about 90 days later before we would have the Surface [for Windows] 8 Pro, and those will just be in limited distribution to start.’

The Surface product is being manufactured by Pegatron, the same China=based company that assembles Apple iPhones.

NEXT: Ballmer On What Led To The Decision To Launch Surface

Ballmer said the decision to create the Surface tablet line came as a result of Microsoft’s decision to not cede any market space to Apple as it brought Windows 8 to market.

’What we said at the [Surface] launch sort of speaks to all of it,which is as we brought Windows 8 to market we made a decision that we just were not going to leave any [space] exposed to Apple in terms of an innovation boundary,’ he said. ’We were going to think about things holistically. We were going to make sure that this particular form factor that was all the best of a PC and all the best of a tablet, got all of the best innovation we could bring and not leave that exposed to potential vagaries that may come out of our [hardware partner] ecosystem while it is getting galvanized. And we made that decision and moved forward down that path.’

As to the impact Surface will have on Microsoft’s top and bottom line, Ballmer said he expects Microsoft to have a ’decent-size business’ with Surface.

’Whether we have a decent-size business or better than that will depend on how galvanized our [hardware OEM] partners really get around the Windows 8 opportunity,’ he said.

The decision to break from the past and enter the tablet hardware business with Surface has received rave reviews from Microsoft partners at the conference.

’I applaud them for being aggressive and moving forward with [Surface] and developing their ecosystem beyond what they have traditionally done,’ said Kevin Murai, president and CEO of Synnex, one of the top IT product distributors. ’For us, the world is changing. All partners we deal with are evolving. If it is the right move for Microsoft, we certainly embrace it too.’

David Powell, vice president of managed services for TekLinks, a Birmingham, Ala.-based Microsoft hosting partner, called Microsoft’s decision to bring Surface to market a ’great move’ that has the potential to shake up the market.

’For Microsoft to control the quality and user experience, they had to control the hardware,’ said Powell. ’For all of Apple’s heavy handedness and control, the Apple experience is always the same. It is clean and tight. For Microsoft to compete with that they had to control the hardware.’

All that said, Powell noted that Microsoft is late to the tablet game. ’They are entering a market where they are not the dominant player and that is unfamiliar territory for Microsoft,’ he said. ’Today 90 percent of the market is Apple iPad. The question is will Surface be good enough to get someone to put their $600 iPad in the drawer and buy a Surface?’