Microsoft discounts Surface for WPC attendees

Microsoft will make Surface Pro 3 available to WPC attendees at a discount, but remains unclear on when (or if) partners will be able to resell the device.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3WASHINGTON, DC – Microsoft is again giving partners who attend its Worldwide Partner Conference a discount on its Surface tablet devices this year, but it’s not the fire sale that proved a highlight of last year’s WPC in Houston.

Last year, the company offered WPC attendees a deep discount, offering the first-generation Surface RT tablet for just $99 to those attending the show, while the more full-featured Surface Pro went to attendees for $399.

That promotion drew long lineups in Houston, as many partners took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a sub-$100 tablet and try out Microsoft’s first take at building a PC itself.

This year’s promotion, a more modest $229 (U.S.) off the retail price of the combination of a new Surface Pro 3 and a Type Cover 3, does not appear to be drawing the same kind of hours-long lineups as last year, but an increasing number of the tablet/notebook hybrids are showing up around this year’s WPC.

While the discount is not as deep, it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison. The show promo this year offers an Intel Core i5-based Surface Pro with 256 GB of storage with a larger screen and a device that that Microsoft COO Kevin Turner, in typically bombastic style, says outdoes both the Apple MacBook Air and iPad at their own games. So while the $1,199 (U.S.) show special price tag might be significantly higher than last year’s offering, it’s also a much more robust product on offer.

To be sure, this year’s device is more a full-functioned PC than its Windows RT-based predecessor ever was, and has received markedly better reviews than the Surface 1 or 2. Partners are also getting access to the just-launched device much earlier in the product lifecycle than last year’s promo, which came as the original Surface was being phased out in favour of the second generation product.

Turner’s fiery promotion of the Surface against Apple products was met with sparse applause compared to other “big shots” the COO took at rivals during his keynote, underlying the precarious role of the Surface in the channel. While many partners are interested in the device, and a significant group are toting the tablets here at WPC, the company continues to tightly control which partners have access to reselling the devices – a very small subset of the colossal Microsoft channel ranks.

And thus far at WPC, the company has been mum on expanding channel access to what it clearly sees as its flagship product, although with the main stage appearance of new CEO Satya Nadella (he of “nothing is off the table” memo fame), it is certainly within the realm of the possible that Microsoft will reverse its Surface channel strategy, which has to date been largely exclusive of its core base of solution providers.

Today, only a handful of high-volume retail and value-added partners in Canada have access to selling Surface, and there remains little indication that this is going to change, even as Microsoft increasingly promotes the device as the flagship Windows-based experience.

Microsoft partners have largely been patient with the software giant on the Surface, as it has said it needs to figure out hardware return policies and other such scenarios that are much less a factor in its traditional software world. But two years into the Surface product lifecycle, partners are left to wonder if Microsoft will make good on former channel chief Jon Roskill’s pledge last year that Surface will be available across the channel eventually. If managing hardware inventory is that troubling to Microsoft, it merely needs to turn to any or all of its distribution partners for help. All of them have experience in dealing with just those kinds of issues for vendors off all kinds of sizes and all kinds of  backgrounds, and more than one have strongly hinted that they’d be more than happy to be known as the one that helped Microsoft make Surface a truly channel product.

For the moment, Microsoft’s Surface channel strategy ironically closely follows that of the rival it targets with the device – Apple. Use a select few partners where it makes the most sense to the vendor, and remain exclusivity by centering the experience on a few locations, most notably the company’s own retail stores. While with Apple, partners will roll their eyes, chalk it up to “Apple being Apple” and either grudgingly play Apple’s game to get access or simply choose not to offer the company’s hardware, partners have come to expect a lot more from Microsoft.