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Microsoft Surface to hit third-party stores on Wednesday

US, Australia first, other countries to follow

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Microsoft has confirmed that it has ramped up production of its Surface fondleslabs in advance of a new global retail sales push, one that should see the devices hit third-party retail store shelves as early as this Wednesday.

"The public reaction to Surface has been exciting to see," Surface general manager Panos Panay said in a statement. "We've increased production and are expanding the ways in which customers can interact with, experience, and purchase Surface."

Rumors that Microsoft has been planning to expand the retail footprint of Surface have been swirling for weeks, but Redmond has remained mum on its plans until now, presumably as it races to ink last-minute deals with retailers in time for the holiday buying frenzy.

Microsoft's official announcement did not say which retailers would carry the devices, but office-supply giant Staples has separately confirmed that it plans to stock them in its US stores beginning this Wednesday.

Australian retailers – also unnamed – will begin selling the slabs in mid-December, with the retail push continuing into other countries in the following months.

For now, at least, that means retailers will stock the ARM-based version of Surface running Windows RT. Microsoft isn't due to launch the Intel-powered Surface with Windows 8 Pro version until January, and there was no word whether these would get similar distribution to the Surface RT.

Until this announcement, however, the only way to buy a Surface has been directly from Microsoft itself. Redmond has sold the devices through its website to customers in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, the UK, and the US since the official Surface launch in October.

In addition, the company operates 31 permanent retail stores where customers can buy Surface in person, and in October it opened an additional 34 "pop-up" stores in malls and shopping areas in the US and Canada.

Microsoft had initially said that these small-scale Surface-flogging kiosks would be temporary, lasting only through the holiday season. But on Tuesday, the software giant said that it now plans to morph the pop-up stores into permanent "specialty store locations," with some even becoming full-blown retail stores.

That move, like the seemingly last-minute decision to get Surface units onto retail shelves before the New Year, is doubtless designed to increase Microsoft's retail presence relative to that of its rival, Apple.

Microsoft has dogged Cupertino's moves closely throughout its fledgling retail adventure. Its permanent retail locations have been described as blatant ripoffs of Apple's, and every one of its pop-up stores opened within a mile's distance of the nearest Apple Store, with most located just up the road – or down the mall corridor.

Still, Microsoft's 65 retail locations are a far cry from Apple's nearly 400, and even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has admitted that the company's retail ramp-up so far has been "modest" – which must surely translate into low sales for Surface, even if he won't admit it.

Ballmer won't be able to put his own spin on the Surface sales story for long, though. With the devices in retailers' hands, an accurate picture of who's buying Surface and in what numbers will start to emerge, which may well make this the make-or-break moment for Microsoft's new hardware strategy. ®

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