Initial reviews are mixed about the new Microsoft Surface Pro that went on sale Feb. 9, both about the device and the demand for it. But one thing is sure, the Pro enters a tablet market that is growing rapidly and is highly competitive. The challenge to the Pro is to get a viable piece of that market. Frankly, ANY piece.
While reviews range from “terrific” to “meh,” initial demand has been strong. Some skeptics, though, say Microsoft purposely limited shipments to retailers so there would be media reports that it sold out, which there were.
Whatever the range of opinions about the Surface Pro, the fact is that the tablet market is crazy huge.
The research firm IDC reported that tablet sales worldwide shot up by 75.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 to 52.5 million units, versus the nearly 30 million units sold in the fourth quarter of 2011. Sales were also up 74.3 percent from the previous quarter’s 30.1 million units. In other words, if you didn’t get a tablet computer for Christmas last year, your family doesn’t love you.
But the importance of Microsoft’s place in the market is a little murky with these early numbers.
IDC ranked tablet sales by the tablet brand, not the operating system. The top selling brand was the Apple iPad with 22.9 million units sold for a market share of 43.6 percent. While iPad is the runaway best seller, competitors are gaining on them. Apple sold more iPads in the fourth quarter than in the year ago quarter but actually lost market share, which had been 51.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
The reason was Number 2 Samsung and Number 4 Asus, which had sales gains of 263 percent and 402.3 percent, respectively. While their unit sales were still tiny compared to Apple’s, both grew their market share in the quarter. Samsung more than doubled its market share from 7.3 percent in 4Q2011 to 15.1 percent in 4Q12, while Asus nearly tripled its share from 2 percent to 5.8 percent.
Microsoft’s role in that is hard to tell but probably limited. Both Samsung and Asus offer tablets running Windows 8 RT, but most of their tablets run the Google Android operating system.
The second and fourth place tablet brands in Q4 were Amazon’s Kindle line, with 6 million units for an 11.5 percent share, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook with 1 million units and a 1.9 percent share.
The Microsoft Surface RT went on sale Oct. 26, 2012, three weeks into the fourth quarter, so its sales were lumped into the “Other” category in IDC’s results.
The first quarter 2013 IDC numbers will give us the first hint as to whether the Surface RT and the Surface Pro gain any traction but I think it will take a couple of quarters more before we see if Microsoft’s bet on Surface is paying off.