What's the truth behind the sellout of the Microsoft Surface Pro?

Here's the good news for Microsoft: The 128GB version of its Surface Pro tablet is in so much demand that it sold out in a day. Here's the bad news: That might be a sign that the Surface launch has been badly botched, or else is an artificially induced sellout because Microsoft purposely understocked the Windows 8 tablet.

The Surface Pro went on sale Saturday, and the 128 GB version quickly sold out, although the 64GB version is still available. It was sold out at Microsoft's online store, as well as at retail stores. Some stores reported people waiting in long lines to buy the device, reminiscent of the way that people line up when new Apple devices are launched.

The sellout certainly sounds like good news, especially when you take into account that a Forrester report found that when information workers are asked what type of tablet they want at work, Microsoft is at the top of the heap. Some 32% want a Windows tablet, compared to 26% for an Apple tablet, and 12% for Android. Forrester estimates that 200 million information workers worldwide would opt for a Windows tablet.

But is the sellout really good news? Perhaps not. A number of people believe that the sellout is artifically induced because Microsoft purposely understocked them, as a way of building buzz around the device by making it seem it's in demand. Product Reviews Net, for example, has this to say:

These marketing tactics are nothing new because many companies have employed the same sort of practices in the past, with Apple and Nintendo being just two of them. To you and I this is considered unfair, but it does help promote a device, just like the original Wii back in 2006.

We're hearing several stories where some retail stores had very limited stock of the Surface Pro, but in some cases they had none at all, which seems strange considering how long they have had to prepare for launch day.

And Computerworld's Gregg Keizer notes:

Another interpretation could be that buyers were turned off by the 64GB model's relatively paltry amount of storage space available for applications and user content.

There's always the possibility that Microsoft simply underestimated demand for the tablet. But that's not exactly a mark in Microsoft's favor, because it means that it may lose potential buyers because of it.

Microsoft isn't saying much about the shortage, saying in a blog post:

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. Our priority is to ensure that every customer gets their new Surface Pro as soon as possible.

Microsoft, if it wanted, could easily clear up the confusion about whether the Surface Pro is selling like gangbusters, or whether there simply weren't that many to be had. It could simply release sales figures.

But Microsoft won't do that. It hasn't even released sales figures of its Windows RT-based Surface tablet, which it insists is selling well, even though reports say otherwise. Estimates put Surface sales at 750,000, with very high rates of return. And a Canalys report found that "only 3% of pads shipped in Q4 2012 used a Microsoft operating system."

Remember, when the Windows RT-based Surface was first released, it initially sold out as well. So a product selling out initially does not necessarily mean it's a big seller.

At this point, there's no way to know the truth. But because Microsoft won't release sales figures, and because many retailers reported they received very few units, my guess is that despite the "sold-out" headlines, the Surface Pro sales were not nearly as high as they seem.

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