Oh dear: I had such high hopes of Microsoft’s Surface tablets — particularly when those rumors of an extremely aggressive price of $199 started circulating. Even the speculation around a $299 to $399 price point left some hope of success. Now that the pre-order service has gone live, it’s apparent that the price point Microsoft has chosen will restrict its sales to the usual fervent tech buyers and Microsoft staff (although they don’t get one free from the company, which is actually quite a good way to improve unit shipments).
Priced at $499 for a 32 Gb version — plus an additional $100 for arguably its best innovation, the keyboard cover — the Surface RT simply isn’t competitive. Sure, it’s a similar price to an iPad (but probably around twice the price of an iPad Mini) and may be similarly priced to the (unseen) 10-inch Nexus when released (but more than twice the price of the Nexus 7), but this ignores the installed base and apps ecosystem for the Android and iOS devices — and you don’t even get a full Windows experience on this ARM tablet. A cut-down version of Office is nice, and may be worth up to $50 for some consumers, but an Intel-based Acer Iconia W510 can be had for the same money. And arguments about differences in on-board storage make less an less sense as these devices increasing tap into iCloud, SkyDrive etc.
Microsoft is also ignoring the stage of development of the tablet market. We are now seeing third- or fourth-iteration tablets on rival platforms, and firms like Amazon are lowering costs by using differing business models. This isn’t like Xbox, where Microsoft could jump in at the start of a new generation because each generation effectively started from scratch; it’s not even like Internet Explorer, where the firm was late to market but used its sheer critical mass to drive the browser to No. 1.
It’s a depressing illustration of the position that Microsoft finds itself in – keen to be a “devices and services” company but tied to a variety of OEMs that it is desperate not to offend (at least in the short term). It has to price high and build hardware to “inspire” partners, but the trouble is that few are inspired by devices that fail to sell. Ironically, after all the efforts to port Windows to ARM architectures, Microsoft may have been better served by waiting a year or so until x86 tablets had established an ecosystem and then releasing the ARM device with better battery life and a more competitive price (as component costs fall).
As more and more OEMs release details of their Windows 8 touch devices, pricing trends are starting to become apparent: $499 to $649 for an x86 tablet (Acer, Lenovo); $500 to $800 for a touch-enabled laptop (pretty much all the OEMs); and premium pricing for large all-in-ones and innovative form factors (Asus TaiChi, Sony Vaio Duo 11, Dell XPS 12). All in all, this pricing is reasonable and demonstrates where OEMs are focusing: touch-enabling traditional form factors and sticking with x86 architectures. It will be these devices (with perhaps a couple of cheap OEM RT tablet) that businesses start to experiment with and that consumers buy as their “next PC” — not the failed attempt to jump on the ARM bandwagon that the Surface RT represents.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the Surface is a beautifully designed tablet with some excellent engineering and a novel UI — better than most of the existing competition. Doubtless, the couple of hundred consumers who buy them will love them to bits. Unfortunately, this all sounds depressingly familiar; perhaps Microsoft should have called it the Zune HD Surface.
In what is likely to become a trend in the next month, two OEMs announce their Windows tablet pricing pretty much at the same time. Acer has bagged the “first!” title for announcing and getting journalist/blogger hands on its Windows 8 tablets; (I’m assuming, of course, that those leaked ASUS prices were simply a joke/placeholder). Shortly after, Lenovo unveiled the pricing for its raft of tablets. My initial impressions: not bad, some interesting innovation, still a bit pricey for consumers (particularly for an Acer), and it throws Microsoft Surface pricing into even more doubt.
As of November 9, you will be able to buy a Windows 8 tablet for less than $500. That price will get you the 10.1-inch, 32 Gb Acer Iconia W510, fully $100 cheaper than the equivalent iPad (although the screen resolution is much lower). But, disappointingly, to get a keyboard dock included, you need to get the more expensive 64 Gb version with a $750 sticker price; as yet, there’s no price for buying the keyboard dock separately.
Interestingly, Acer also plans to sell the Iconia W700 for $799 to $999. Wait, what? An 11.6-inch tablet using a “proper” Intel CPU, with a better resolution screen, twice the storage, a dock, and a Bluetooth keyboard will be within $50 of the keyboard version of the W510?
Lenovo seems keen to cover every conceivable base with its Windows tablet offerings:
The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is broadly similar to the Acer Iconia W510 and starts at $649 ($799 with a keyboard dock). The ThinkPad name clearly indicates that this is a business-focused device.
The ThinkPad Twist is another business-focused machine and is really a convertible laptop rather than a true tablet. It starts at $849 — a fairly aggressive price for a true laptop replacement.
Similarly, the IdeaPad Yoga 13 is a convertible 13-inch that starts at $1,099 (yikes!). There is also an 11-inch IdeaPad Yoga 11 that — most interestingly — is a Tegra-based Windows RT device starting at $799.
Finally, the IdeaTab Lynx is the consumer tablet (and a close relative to the Acer Iconia W700). It has an 11.6-inch display with a Clover Trail processor and starts at $599 (plus $150 for the keyboard dock).
What this means:
We’re unlikely to see x86-based OEM Windows 8 tablets for less than $500 — or $750 for keyboard versions. While it is trying its utmost to shed its cheap-and-cheerful image, Acer still tends to come in at the low end of the OEM pricing spectrum. Similarly, Lenovo’s consumer PCs tend to emphasize value, while the ThinkPad business range focuses on solid reliability. Here, we can see the two OEMs with probably the lowest prices. Sony, HP, Samsung, and ASUS will almost certainly charge more for their equivalent tablets, and even Dell is likely to be on par at best.
The low-end Windows tablets aren’t a great replacement for laptops. We must also remember that the Clover Trail-based tablets are basically rocking an optimized netbook processor. While this should guarantee good battery life and a cooler running temperature, we’ve yet to see how well this tablet configuration performs in real-world, multitasking use; it’s likely to be as good as other tablets, but it certainly isn’t a replacement for a decent laptop. True PC replacements will probably need: 1) Intel Core i3/i5/i7-based CPUs, which will likely be markedly more expensive (I did mention what a bargain the Surface Pro is looking to be!), and 2) systems based on the newly announced AMD Z-60, which will carve out a middle ground between the two Intel platforms.
Is the Windows Surface Pro really “only” $800? This pricing also makes Ballmer’s $300 to $800 price range for Microsoft Surface devices look shaky. The x86-based Surface Pro will be at the top of that super-wide range — but has a high-resolution display, 64 Gb or 128 Gb of storage, keyboard / cover and a Core i5 processor instead of the weedy Clover Trail Atom processor that’s in both the Iconia W510 and IdeaTab Lynx (warning: don’t use it on your lap!). That starts to look like a comparative bargain if it really is only $800. With an extended warranty, the Acer Iconia W700 already runs up to $1,049.
The $199 Windows Surface RT really was just wishful thinking. ARM-based Windows 8 tablets should be cheaper than x86 tablets, but how much cheaper? $299 to $399 or $399 to $499 seem to be the current bets (without keyboards), but we haven’t seen any offerings as cheap as this yet. Lenovo is obviously hoping that the innovative design of the IdeaPad Yoga 11 will command a massive premium! Let’s face it, a $499 Windows RT tablet isn’t going to fly with consumers, particularly when an x86 is the same price (for a lower spec potentially) — thats even assuming consumers can be dragged away from the Apple aisle. Even $350 to $399 is beyond the “impulse buy” price range that might help them fly off of the shelf. I’m not sure Microsoft will need those midnight openings to satisfy pent-up demand.
Obviously BOM (Bill of materials) is restricting how low prices can go. There is already some excellent analysis putting the cost of building a Microsoft Surface RT tablet at $300+, an x86 version would be slightly more. As Android tablet makers discovered, the display & touchscreen elements don’t come cheap – and that was when they didn’t have to pay for an OS! For a new product category without volume supply / manufacturing economies (like Apple has) there is precious little margin to be had if the retail price is to be attractive to consumers.
To be fair, it’s still early days. The Surface Pro isn’t scheduled to be released until early 2013, and Acer or Lenovo could adjust prices down as other OEMs lift the veil on their hardware. The most promising devices so far (that we know the price of) are those PC-replacement convertibles; they match the price of Ultrabooks and offer the best of both worlds, albeit in a more bulky package.
My guess is that by the end of the year, Clover Trail Windows 8 tablets (without keyboard) will be available from $399; “PC-replacement” tablets will be around the $799 mark; and Microsoft will still choose to price the Surface Pro at more than $800 ($899 or $999 seem most likely) to appease its OEM partners.