Hypothetically, What Would A $199 Windows RT Surface Tablet Say About Microsoft’s Strategy?

The inter-web is awash with rumours that the Microsoft Surface tablet (ARM version) will launch in October at a price point of $199. This is less than half the price many people were expecting on the assumption that Microsoft was following the more usual “price it the same as an iPad and see if it sells” strategy (it won’t).

Is it plausible that this is the target price? If so, and I have no deeper insight into the validity of the rumour than anyone else, what does it tell us about Microsoft’s state of mind?

  • Suddenly, it’s a two-platform strategy: Windows RT is for media consumption. One of the main concerns around both ARM and x86 tablets was the potential for consumer confusion – particularly if they are similarly priced. Putting the Windows RT surface device out at $199 does away with much of that confusion and puts the device squarely in the affordable “media consumption” tablet space (something for which Microsoft has continually derided the iPad and Android tablets). It could be the best device in this category – blowing away the Kindle Fire. Of course, this low-functionality positioning is a bigger risk if the breakeven model relies on the upsell of productivity apps (its unclear what version of Office will ship with the Surface) or a vibrant apps marketplace – you don’t need either of these to surf the Web or watch videos.
  • It’s a recognition that this is the only way Windows RT will gain traction. As I said when ARM-based Windows was announced back in early 2011, this seemed like a major coup. Since then, though, it has looked more and more like the Windows RT tablet would be DOA given its lack of backwards compatibility, improved x86 performance, and a price point similar to the iPad. But, $199 for a very compelling-looking device would mean that all bets are off; this is a sweet-spot price for impulse consumer electronics purchases and would guarantee very healthy sales (stock allowing). It would also have the added benefit (to Microsoft) of killing off the premium Android tablet market; then again, Google’s Nexus 7 is doing a pretty good job of this already.
  • It’s a massive internal shift in Microsoft’s strategy. If bringing out its own tablet and disenfranchising OEM partners wasn’t enough, a major Microsoft division is now looking at taking a bath on each unit sold. Bear in mind that this is one of the divisions that has always looked down on Xbox and the consumer businesses for haemorrhaging money. Sure, Microsoft sold Xbox hardware at a loss, but game consoles are recognized industry loss leaders and have shown that the razor/razor-blade model works. Selling enough software, content, or advertising (ha!) for a tablet that may cost you $100 more than the asking price to get out the door is a different matter altogether.
  • It’s an explicit statement of intent: OEMs will only be able to compete with x86 devices. OEMs are already hurting from a declining (traditional) PC business with razor-thin margins; they can’t afford to subsidize their own Windows RT tablets in the same way that Microsoft can. And nobody is going to pay a significant premium for an HP, Lenovo, or Dell device over Microsoft’s own Surface tablet. So if the price point is real, Microsoft is basically carving out the ARM tablet market for itself.

It’s an interesting time for Microsoft. It desperately needs a successful tablet launch to stay relevant — and for that reason, the first three points above are at least plausible. The final point though is more far-fetched. Kicking the OEMs when they are down is one thing; letting them announce Windows RT devices and then bringing your own to market at half the price is more akin to robbing them at knife point. For this reason, my opinion is the $199 price is bogus or contains contractual telco smallprint.