Editorial: Microsoft Completely Botches Surface Pro Launch, Wastes Everyone’s Time

Today was the official launch date of Microsoft’s much-anticipated Surface Pro, the tablet device they famously announced in the summer of 2012. The device, supposed to bridge the gap between tablets and ultrabook laptops offering, if not a perfect amalgamation of the two, at least a superb blending of capabilities. From the various reviews, it sounds like the device more or less gets there, and a few days ago my fiancée and I managed to get some hands on time with the devices at Microsoft’s store in South Coast Plaza, Orange County, CA. We’d gone in hopes of getting a reservation card, announced a few days before. Kelley is an artist, and as such Surface represents probably the best value in tablet and computer on the market, thanks to its integrated Wacom digitizer that supports 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. After playing with the device in store that day, she knew it was worth getting as a worthy upgrade to her aging Tablet PC. She’d tried for a time with the iPad (which we finally got rid of awhile back), but that device simply isn’t up to the task. So we asked for a reservation card, but were told that they were already gone. Subsequently the employee said not to worry because “we’ll have hundreds, you won’t need a reservation,” so we left the store with no worries.

Then this morning arrived, and as we got ready to head to the store, I perused the news and came across a startling article: Surface Pro sells out immediately. What the hell happened?

We called our local Microsoft store to confirm, and indeed they are sold out. The rep actually said they sold out “hundreds” within 20 minutes, though frankly I have a very hard time believing that. So we drove to our local Staples and found the Surface display, crammed in a slightly out-of-the-way end cap, disheveled and looking like the place where one would cram the cheap junk nobody cares about. No Surface Pro was on display, but a tag did claim they had 64GB models, so we decided to flag down an employee. The first employee looked confused by the words “Microsoft Surface,” and when we showed him the display he looked confused, as if he’d never seen it before. So he flagged down another employee, who told us “it’s not out yet.” I informed him that yes, in fact, it came out today. Blank stare. “We don’t have any,” he said, and we showed him the tag. “Maybe online only,” he replied, and I started to get a little irritated. “Can you please check stock?” He finally relented and went to check stock. Sure enough, they had none of the 128GB models nor even the 64GB.

While we waited for the employee to go through the local store inventory and find out if anyone nearby had the Surface Pro in stock, I started looking online with my Lumia 920, and the reports I was finding were disturbing: Staples stores getting either none or one of each, Best Buy stores getting one or two of each model, many times not even enough to cover preorders. What was happening here? I decided we’d try the Best Buy, though by this point I had fairly little hope.

We walked in the door and quickly found the Surface and Surface Pro display, which I can only describe as a pathetic little endcap with very little information and not a single Surface of any kind in stock. Compared to the Apple iPad display right next to it, the Surface display looked like a sad joke.

Upon investigation, we learned from an employee that they had received ONE Surface Pro, and it was immediately given to the one person who’d preordered it. Left with no choice, we preordered in the hopes that the next batch–which they couldn’t even tell us an arrival date for–might net her the new Surface.

Surface Pro at the Microsoft Store At first blush, it sounds like great news that Surface Pro has sold out. Boo-fucking-yah. But when most stores got one or no units, this isn’t a victory, it’s a disgrace, and it’s entirely Microsoft’s doing. Moreover, the pathetic store displays leave very little wonder why they thought they could get away with a miniscule launch for Surface Pro: the section where Surface lives in any retail store not owned by Microsoft looks like it’s in the ghetto. If you were an average shopper, you wouldn’t care about the Surface at all, because the message Microsoft’s merchandisers, if they even have any, have sent, is that they don’t care about it either.

Go into any retail store that isn’t a Microsoft Store, and what you’ll find is similar to what I saw this morning: Surface displays where there are either devices turned off, laid flat, or someone has kicked off the recovery process, making it look like the device is broken. On several occasions I’ve come across these devices (the RT versions) in this state and have taken the few moments it takes to fix them, but where are the official merchandisers whose job it should be to ensure these products are shown in the best possible light? As far as I can tell, either Microsoft hasn’t hired any or the ones they have hired are apathetic and don’t care about the quality of the job they do.

Today should have been something special. It should have been the day that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were able to get the first of a new kind of computer that could ultimately be the direction the entire PC industry goes: a convergent device that’s great work and play. Instead, it’s the day Microsoft wasted everyone’s time with a soft launch that included very few actual units to sell, and for those who came looking, showed them a retail presence that even Microsoft doesn’t care enough to present effectively.

What a sad day for technology enthusiasts everywhere.

Did you try to buy a Surface Pro today? If so, what was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

  • just now saw this, sorry if i wasn’t clear but she reserved hers before me, but was behind me in line when the store opened. Finally got a surface pro, the MS store called me the next week and said they had 1 on hold for me, so i was only out a week.

  • I agree about Staples; they are relatively useless when it comes to keeping stock of anything that isn’t a paperclip or a desk organizer :P. I think part of the key problem here is that Microsoft COMPLETELY misunderstood the market for the Surface in both iterations. First, the release of the Surface RT at a commensurate price with the iPad while offering mostly worse specs (cameras, screen, CPU relative to the OS, etc). Second by releasing the Pro, to begin with, VERY late, literally 8 MONTHS after the device announcement, and in configurations that make no sense (64GB model).

    The problem with Surface RT is that it wasn’t what audiences were waiting for. They wanted a tablet that could replace their PC–which is to say, Surface Pro–and instead they got a well designed but ultimately underpowered and overpriced RT tablet. Then, when the tablet they wanted actually arrived, they got jilted by absurdly low stock. I don’t even think people mind the high price–I was willing to drop the full monty to get the top of the line Surface for my fiancee, and probably still will–but can’t seal the deal yet.

    The only other piece of marketing I believe is a disaster is that they emphasize the type cover in every single advertisement, it’s a part that only costs $14 to make while their per unit profit margins are hundreds of dollars, and yet it’s not included. Not just not included, but obscenely overpriced–there’s just no reason it should cost $120-130.

    Anyway, I’m ranting, and annoyed. I’ll shut up and go to bed now 🙂

  • ElfNeedsFoodBad

    Staples is a bit hopeless at stocking itself in about anything. I was looking at the “tablet” section at my local Staples a couple of weeks ago and that display had exactly one Android tablet and one older Windows tablet (Samsung 7) and a bunch of spots where the tablets were missing. Staples also made a corporate decision to ship only the 64 GB models of the Surface Pro to the stores and the 128 GB model was “online only”.

    I was able to get one at a Microsoft store yesterday evening, but it did seem checkout was almost intentionally slow in order to ensure there was a line going outside of the store (10-12 people), it took about half an hour to get the device and get checked out. As I was leaving, I believe the last of the 128 GB versions were sold out there as well. The rep had said they had a “couple hundred” in the morning at the Microsoft store.

    When I was at Best Buy to get a type cover (the Microsoft store sold out of them), there were three separate groups of people coming by the display and asking the sales rep when they’d be able to buy one just in the time it took them to find their last type keyboard in the store (in the cell phone area for whatever reason, where there was a second Surface display in the same BestBuy) so there is legitimately some pent up demand.

    The overall stocking issue was probably, quite simply, something Microsoft was being especially conservative on stocking seeing the RT “play” tablets not sell very well. The inclusion of Staples and Best Buy at initial launch was something they chose not to do with the RT tablets and then delivered into December.

  • Great point. IMHO, “bribing” these stores to display a product like Surface correctly is something Microsoft should absolutely be investing in. It’s clear that Apple does it, and it’s clear that it pays off. With regards to retail employees, I agree that in most cases they just do not care. Granted, they don’t get paid enough to justify a great deal of caring, but that’s all the more reason to invest in a merchandising team that *does* care enough 🙂

  • Just curious: Why did the lady behind you with a reservation get one while you didn’t, being ahead of her?

  • mmcpher

    JW, if you want these stores to properly display an item you have to pretty much bribe them to do so. Whether it’s Best Buy or Staples. It makes no sense, because they don’t make on what they don’t sell and the dilapidated product stands are a terrible advertisement for the store as much as the product, but their employees don’t seem to care. If they aren’t going to carry stock, I would just as soon buy it from Microsoft. I did check out a Surface RT at a decently-run Staples and the form factor was terrific and the browser blindingly fast. I’m waiting on 128 Pro as well. OK, someone botched the launch, for whatever reason. Is there something preventing MS from taking orders now? Are there no units close to available?

  • I was first in line at best buy, with a reservation. Only one person got one, a lady behind me in line with a prior reservation. Then went to MS store since i was told the night before they open at 10am, when i got there they had sold out 30 min ago and they had opened at 8am

  • Schadenfreude for the win, I always say :).

    Actually, I never say that, I’m just kidding :P. We did the same thing, just preordered and crossed our fingers. Later I called the MS store and was told they MAY have some in the morning, but they won’t know until tomorrow morning.

    It’s a shame–they’ve handled this launch very poorly. Good luck getting yours sooner rather than later!

  • Diogenes Veritas

    I tried to buy one today. I had a similar experience, but I gave up looking for an actual device on my third try. I just placed a pre-order at the local Best Buy and will hope for the best that it comes in sooner than later. Thank you for the blog post though (saw your reply at Gizmodo to Eric Limer’s story). It’s helped me to feel better (misery loves company) by realizing that my experience was far from an isolated incident.

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