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Touch system shortages, sales played parts in Surface RT retail expansion

December 12, 2012 10:21 AM ET

But with just 65 stores, only 31 of which are permanent, in the U.S. and Canada, and none in other markets, Microsoft was unable to cover enough retail ground. It can't instantly build more stores, but it will try a stop-gap: Also on Tuesday, the company said it would extend the lifespan of the 34 pop-ups into 2013, and mutate several into permanent stores.

Although Microsoft declined to say how long the pop-ups will remain open, they may linger well into next year. Microsoft plans to start selling the Surface Pro, a more expensive tablet that runs Windows 8 rather than Windows RT, in late January.

The Surface Pro will sell for $899 and $999 in 64GB and 128GB configurations, with the Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards selling separately for $120 and $130.

Another factor, perhaps a deciding one for the faster-than-expected Surface RT retail shift, was the early sales signs of Windows 8, and by extension, the Windows RT tablet OS.

"What's selling is touch," said Baker, referring to NPD's data, which showed that while Windows 8's launch didn't boost PC sales, touchscreen devices were the one bright spot. "The problem is that there really aren't many [touchscreen devices] in the stores."

Microsoft saw that trend, too, Baker argued, and used it to decide the Surface RT's retail fate. "They may have said, 'Look, this is one of the best new devices with touch, touch is selling, let's get it in front of people now.'"

OEMs have taken the brunt of blame ladled out by analysts and other pundits for slow sales of Windows 8 machines, with me-too designs and a dearth of touch-enabled hardware often cited. Computer makers must shoulder some of that blame, said Baker, but they aren't the only culprits, which range from Windows' new UI and tough economic times to the desertion of dollars to tablets.

"Let's not shovel the blame," Baker said. "The fact is that touch is what's selling Windows 8, sales there are better than expected, and it's what resonates with customers."

Which may be the best explanation for Microsoft's decision to revise the Surface RT's retail timetable.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter@gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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