Microsoft Surface RT Prices

Microsoft has finally revealed the pricing of its upcoming Surface RT tablet, and it certainly exceeds expectations… in the wrong direction. The cheapest version is US$499 but that excludes the foldable keyboard called “Touch Cover” – the Surface’s most distinctive feature, required to properly use the included Office Home & Student.

So the actual minimum price is $599 with 32 GB storage. The 64 GB version is $699, a separate Touch Cover costs an astounding $119.99, and the Type Cover with mechanical keys is $129.99. Amazon’s prices for the excellent keyboards I use with my PC (MS Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000) and iPad (Logitech Tablet Keyboard) are less than half that. I guess the Touch Cover must be made of the same diamond-studded solid gold as Microsoft’s notoriously overpriced WiFi adapter for the Xbox 360.

This is bad news for Windows 8. I had hoped and expected that $499 would be the upper price limit for the Surface RT, so as to compensate for the iPad’s entrenched brand image and vast app selection. The device is still not without appeal if you specifically want to use Office and browse the web, but $599 is a shockingly high price for that privilege on a rather simple 1366×768 tablet.

On the other hand, there is also the upcoming Intel-based Surface Pro (prices yet unknown) which I consider a much more attractive choice anyway. On the third hand, the mere existence of two equal-sized tablets called “Surface” and running “Windows” provides a grand opportunity for confused and frustrated customers, since not even Microsoft Store employees can explain the difference between the two…

While we’re trying to figure out whether we’re watching a success story or a trainwreck, Matt Buchanan has visited Microsoft’s Surface designers and documented the decisions that led to the device. The long article is well worth reading; here are some choice quotes:

If Windows 8 fails, it won’t kill the company, but it will raise some serious questions about what the future of Microsoft looks like. It could end up rich but invisible; important to businesses and computing and technology but not, in any immediate way, to normal people.

I’m glad someone finally noticed this. Reading other editorials, one might think Microsoft will go bankrupt if it doesn’t make better search than Google and better tablets than Apple. But in reality, such threats in consumer space hardly affect Microsoft’s hugely profitable business products. You don’t see Oracle and IBM trying to make tablets. On the contrary, IBM jettisoned its consumer products altogether when the PC price wars heated up, and they have been doing fine ever since.

Much of Matt’s article describes the attention to detail lavished on the Surface. I certainly can’t wait to get my hands on one of those wonder devices, although the price will ultimately decide if I actually buy one.

[…] Apple’s managed to construct a kind of thought monopoly on design and manufacturing sophistication, which is something Microsoft very much wants to change. It wants everyone to know that it GETS design. That it can be, and is, just as fanatical as any other company about these kinds of things.

[T]he feel and sound of the Surface’s built-in kickstand was laboriously designed and engineered, with three custom hinges — one of which is simply for controlling the sound it makes as it closes — and a pair of magnets, so it clamps shut in a precise way without ever rattling.

One last thing to keep in mind is that the Surface will only be sold directly by Microsoft, so any PR statements about the device “selling out” will be meaningless unless they come with concrete numbers.

The extent of Microsoft’s caution is fully revealed by the fact that it’s only selling the Surface in its own stores — of which there are only 30 or so, with another 30 pop-ups opening for the holidays — and online. It not only allows Microsoft to carefully manage the experience of anybody buying a Surface, but by narrowing the launchpad so intensely, it also provides a fair amount of insulation from any criticism of Surface’s sales, should they suck terribly. Which might seem like NBD, but given its past problems with Zune and Windows Phone, any perception of weak sales could be poison to Surface. Microsoft is looking for another Kinect, which became the fastest-selling piece of consumer electronics in history.

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