Microsoft is blowing a golden opportunity with the Surface Pro launch

The Microsoft Store in Times Square, New York. Credit: blakespot via Flickr

Whether it was short supply or unexpected demand, Microsoft bungled the Surface Pro launch.

The tablet, more appealing than its Surface RT predecessor because it can run all Windows apps, including full versions of Office, went on sale on Saturday. Reports of long lines at some Microsoft retail stores suggested great demand.

But then came a flood of reports from people saying that the Best Buy and Staples stores they visited had just one or two Surface Pro tablets on hand to sell.

On launch day, Microsoft posted on a blog that supplies were limited at retail partners. “Customer response to the launch of Surface Pro has been amazing. We’re working with our retail partners who are currently out of stock of the 128GB Surface Pro to replenish supplies as quickly as possible,” Panos Panay, corporate vice president for Microsoft Surface, wrote. Microsoft’s own web site also shows the devices are unavailable.

The Surface Pro is more attractive than the RT version and so it’s possible that people have been waiting for the launch. Forrester recently reported that 33 percent of 10,000 information workers surveyed said they wanted a Windows tablet for their next work tablet -- that's a higher percentage than said they wanted the iPad or Android tablets.

We will probably never know if the shortages at launch are a result of supply chain issues or unexpected demand.

What’s clear, though, is that Microsoft is right now losing a big opportunity. On Microsoft’s retail web site, the 128 GB version of the Surface Pro is listed as out of stock, and users can't check the radio button to select it. Visitors are not offered an opportunity to register for an alert when more units are available, or to order one in advance of availability.

“Our priority is to ensure that every customer gets their new Surface Pro as soon as possible,” Panay wrote.

That’s not good enough. Customers want to know when and how to buy one. This isn't rocket science. Many vendors of popular consumer devices put in place mechanisms to not lose customers if supply is short.

The complaints posted after Panay’s blog post reflect the frustration of interested buyers.

“At a minimum at least allow back ordering so those of us actively wanting to purchase a 128GB Surface Pro can gain our rightful place in line. The lack of being unable to back order or MS being unable to provide an expected available date insinuates a serious supply problem,” one person wrote.

Retail outlets like Best Buy aren’t offering much better. The web site says shipping isn’t available for the 128 GB version. In my neighborhood, all area Best Buys list the tablet as unavailable. Like Microsoft, Best Buy isn’t offering interested buyers any options or additional information about buying the tablet.

Even if Microsoft does have a winner on its hands with the Surface Pro, it’s busy alienating excited buyers rather than capturing them as devoted customers. Despite successful consumer product launches, like with Xbox and Kinect, this launch shows Microsoft has a lot to learn about selling its own hardware.

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