There I was, on a Sunday afternoon, with a big decision to make.
I was standing in front of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Surface, and I liked what I saw. Should I spend $499 on the software giant's hyped tablet? OK, so it would have been at least $599, because who can buy the tablet without springing for the magnetically attaching keyboard that's the star of the Surface's infectious marketing campaign?
All right, all right -- it would've been at least $629, because the wafer-thin touch keyboard just wasn't working for me. I'd have to go with the more traditional mechanical keyboard cover.
And the math wasn't the only thing gnawing at my brain.
I was critical of the Surface, and one of the five reasons why the Surface may fall short is that a better Surface -- one that actually runs the x86 programs that PC users expect to run on Windows -- will be out a few months from now. Yes, there's the slightly scaled-down, RT-based preview version of Microsoft Office that's included with today's model. However, I had the feeling buyer's remorse would kick in.
I also didn't see a lot of buying.
When I heard that one of Microsoft's pop-up stores was opening nearby over the weekend, I figured I'd check it out. I wasn't entertaining a purchase, but I wanted to see what was happening. I wasn't expecting the mass of people that the Apple Store -- just about 30 to 40 yards away -- attracts at Dadeland Mall in Miami. I also wasn't expecting the sort of queue that formed outside of Microsoft's flagship Times Square shop. Again, this was also on a Sunday. Microsoft's Surface was already on the market for two days.
However, my initial reaction was nonetheless disappointment. Although I realized the temporary nature of a pop-up store meant that it wouldn't be extravagant, I expected to see at least the sort of seasonal effort shown by the Spirit stores that spring up every Halloween in vacant store slots.
But I didn't. The pop-up "store" was just a kiosk in the middle of the mall. It may have been a bit bigger than the usual kiosks selling smartphone cases, cleaning utensils, or remote-controlled helicopters, but it really was little more than a square counter with a dozen or so Surface display models.
Yes, there were people gathering around the tablets. I even saw an actual sale take place. However, despite the enthusiastic employees and slick display models, it was mostly curious mall-strollers kicking the tires before moving on to the food court.
This is a problem, because Microsoft is offering its tablet at comparable prices to Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad. Running an RT version of Windows Office natively and a keyboard that clicks into place magnetically won't be enough to counter Apple's ecosystem, which now has hundreds of thousands of iPad-specific applications.
Yes, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) introduced a Windows 8 app last week that also works on Surface (and other Windows 8 tablets), but where is everybody else? Isn't Microsoft an investor in Facebook (Nasdaq: FB ) ? Why do I need to fire up Facebook in a browser? Didn't Microsoft agree to a nine-figure investment in Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS ) ? Where's the Nook application? There is, however, a Kindle app.
The lack of developer support is serious, and it may not get better right away. What developer would spring for an RT solution until it knows that this thing will actually begin selling outside of Microsoft's website and a few dozen Microsoft stores around the country?
I don't mind paying a premium as an early adopter, but the signals are mixed here. If I can get a better Windows 8 tablet in a few months for a bit more, or if slow sales will make these tablets cheaper sooner rather than later, I don't need to be that early of an adopter.
I'm probably not the only one feeling this way.
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