yARN: Microsoft keeps tight grip on Surface distribution

"I’m uncomfortable when a manufacturer seeks to restrict my choice of retailers"

Microsoft’s Surface products don’t seem to be setting the world on fire, and I can’t help wondering whether that’s because the number of places you can buy the tablets has been extremely limited. So far, the options have been Microsoft’s online store, Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi.

Now the company is opening up distribution a little, but the Surface RT and Surface Pro will still only be available through a limited number of outlets. Microsoft has decided to work with “a designated group of authorised commercial resellers”. But it’s a small list of just 13 companies.

I don’t know all of those companies, but the names I recognise do have reputations for professionalism. Microsoft says they were picked for their “device selling experience and commercial value added services capabilities… including asset tagging, custom imaging, kitting, onsite service and support, device recycling, and data protection.”

Whether I’m buying products for personal use or for my business, I’m uncomfortable when a manufacturer seeks to restrict my choice of retailers, or when a retailer has been able to do a sweetheart deal giving it exclusive access to a particular model. It always gives me the impression that it is a sneaky way of maintaining prices (for instance, ‘price match’ guarantees only apply to identical items) to the benefit of the reseller or the manufacturer.

Though I did learn last week that some mobile phone ‘exclusives’ come about because only one carrier has chosen to carry a certain variant, not because the others have been denied access to it.

But I’m left asking why, if there’s a Dick Smith Electronics, Big W, Target or Officeworks near my office, should I be expected to travel to a Harvey Norman or JB Hi-Fi to buy a Surface Pro?

On the other hand, Microsoft’s strategy does help eliminate the problem of people visiting a ‘full service’ retailer to learn exactly what they need and to kick the tyres, and then making the purchase from another physical or online retailer just to get the lowest price.

That’s not to say those “commercial value added services” are going to come for free, but I bet there are a lot of resellers that would like to get their hands on the Surface Pro, especially with a new model expected shortly.

One bone that Microsoft is throwing to its reseller and consultant network is that the only way home and small business customers will be able to upgrade from Windows 8 to 8.1 is by updating each PC separately from the Windows Store. They’re not going to be able to download a disk image that can be applied to each of their computers. Microsoft’s advice to small businesses is that they can get a channel partner to manage the process via Intune.

Read more: Federal Court fines Harvey Norman franchisees $234,000

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