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Published July 4, 2018

I once sat down for a long talk with Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Chief Product Officer and the man responsible for bringing the highly successful Surface device range to the world, and he responded to the question of why Microsoft’s Surface Pro didn’t come with a keyboard, and why customers had to buy one separately all the time.

“The first Surface Pro did come with a keyboard” he said “but only in black”.  He went on to explain that Microsoft had also released the keyboard in different colours for that first Surface Pro just a few weeks after the launch, and the company received a great many complaints from customers who wanted a coloured keyboard, but who had been forced to buy a black one.

This effectively changed Microsoft’s policy making forever, and no Surface Pro has since shipped with a keyboard.  The problem, Panos explained, was to do with SKU.  Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) are the different available models of a product that retailers and distributors can stock, and resell.  In the case of Surface Pro, you have about six base models, six SKUs, and about five keyboard colours.  This makes the Surface Pro both easy to manufacture, and sell.

With keyboards bundled with the base models, the number of SKUs all of a sudden expands to thirty, and a great many more when you factor in international keyboard variants, many hundreds in fact.  Panos explained that this presents a major problem for retailers, and indeed Microsoft’s own retail stores, both on the high street and online.  “What happens” he told me “if a retailer has a large stock of the i5 with the purple keyboard, but people are buying the blue keyboard?  These retailers then would have a large amount of stock they can’t sell, and not enough of the products people want to purchase.”

It’s good then for a company to keep things simple when it comes to deciding how many SKUs to have, and this is a lesson that Planet Computers have no doubt learned the hard way.  Selling the Gemini with UK, US, and Japanese keyboards (the three most popular) and with a corresponding charger is just three SKUs.  Planet on the other hand decided to sell about thirty different keyboards, each one with a choice of about three different chargers, and then also in two different models (4G and Wi-Fi only).

Immediately, three SKUs has jumped to a massive 180, so it’s little wonder that manufacture of the international keyboard variants, and distribution of the Gemini to backers hit problems, and why this commentator saw a few, rogue UK keyboard / Japanese charger units sitting idly in the Planet Computers office a few months back.

What this means for the future is uncertain.  The international keyboard options for the Gemini have not only proven hugely popular, but they’re also a big selling point and can help propel the Gemini forward.  For version 2 of the product though we can believe that Planet have learned from their own experience, and from the experiences of people like Panos Panay.  Remember that Microsoft changed policy over a SKU issue significantly smaller than the one faced by Planet, because each country was only ever provided with its own keyboard and charger variation.

This largely explains why technology companies have been so keen to push smartphones and tablet sales over the last decade, and why dual-screen devices are now in the pipeline.  Quite simply, they are significantly cheaper and easier to produce, as all the regional variation takes place in software.  The Gemini is unique, it was very clearly a huge challenge, and it will be interesting to see how Planet address that challenge in the future.

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