Thursday, August 16, 2012

The $199 Surface for Windows RT tablet--why the rumors might need to be true

There are legions of reports, starting with Engadget, that Microsoft may price its entry-level Surface for Windows RT tablet at $199. The reports tend to fall into three categories:
  1. Microsoft would never do that to its licensees, 
  2. It would be awful for its licensees if Microsoft did it, and
  3. Microsoft can afford to do it.
In a sense, all three are true: Under normal circumstances, the last thing that Microsoft would want to do is to compete with its hardware licensees. If Microsoft did it, its (four, count 'em, four) Windows RT licensees would undoubtedly be hurt--there's no way that Asus, Dell, Lenovo and Samsung could, or would, match that price. And yes, Microsoft can afford it--and it has a history of deficit-spending its way into markets. It's estimated that the company lost several billion dollars on its Xbox game console business before it became profitable, and the company recently took a $6 billion write-off on its acquisition of online advertising company aQuantive. The company has also lost billions of dollars on its online business, although it's still nowhere near profitability after years of investments.

I fall into a fourth camp: Microsoft has to do it, for the same reason that the company rushed out its Surface tablets with a last-minute, under-rehearsed announcement that didn't include any price or availability details. My premise is that developers simply aren't showing much interest in creating apps for the tablet user interface formerly called Metro. Microsoft knows better than anyone else whether developers are showing interest in Metro--they know how many developers are using Visual Studio to create apps, and at least roughly, how many apps are under development.

Microsoft also knows that the biggest strength of the iOS platform is its enormous collection of apps, and that Android struggled as a tablet platform because of a lack of apps. Without a strong assortment of apps, and with no price advantage over the iPad and Android, Windows RT will be "dead on arrival." Microsoft has probably already resigned itself to having a big "app gap" when Windows RT ships, so it has to come up with another motivation to get consumers to buy Windows RT tablets, and thus build an attractive market for app developers. That motivation is price.

Microsoft's big lesson may be HP's experience with the webOS TouchPad. At $399, TouchPads gathered dust at Best Buy stores around the U.S. However, when HP dropped the price to $99, hundreds of thousands of the tablets flew off the shelves, even though they were discontinued and HP's commitment to further webOS development was in serious doubt. Demand was so great that HP built more of the tablets, and those that are still available sell at prices close to the original retail price.

Microsoft has to get a lot of Windows RT tablets into consumers' hands in order to encourage developers to write for the platform. If the company believed that the tablets under development by its licensees wouldn't be popular enough to make much of a difference, it had to act--first with the Surface pre-announcement, and now, with a $199 price that will be too good for a lot of people to pass up.

I go back to my point above--Microsoft isn't afraid of taking big losses in order to buy its way into a market. It's also not afraid to lose money on hardware--estimates of Microsoft's costs for replacing Xbox 360 game consoles with the "Red Ring of Death" problem range as high as $2.5 billion. So, while selling the Surface for Windows RT below cost would certainly be an act of desperation, it's already in Microsoft's play book.
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