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Microsoft's Steve Ballmer says Surface tablets to sell a cool "few million"

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said this week that he expects the company to sell at least several million Surface tablets when the gadget makes its debut later this year.

"We may sell a few million," Ballmer said during yesterday's Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto, Canada, where the company also announced its acquisition of large-scale touch display company Perceptive Pixel.

He cited forecasts that said 375 million new Windows PCs will be sold in the next year, but Ballmer said "I don't know how many, of the 375 million" will be Surface sales.

Ballmer, however, insisted that the Surface "will have a distinct place in what's a broad Windows ecosystem."

In the wake of the surprise Surface announcement, there were questions over whether Microsoft's OEM channel might rebel against the notion of their software partner producing a competitive device. HP later scuttled a Qualcomm-powered consumer tablet running Microsoft's next-gen Windows RT OS for ARM, opting instead for Intel chips, but Samsung have indicated it is on board and will make tablets running the new OS.

"The importance of the thousands of partners that we have that design and produce Windows computers will not diminish," Ballmer said yesterday. "We have a mutual goal with our OEM partners to bring a diversity of solutions, Windows PCs, phones, tablets, servers, to market. And what we seek to have is a spectrum of stunning devices, stunning Windows devices. So, every consumer, every business customer can say, 'I have the perfect PC for me.'"

When asked about the secretive nature of the Surface launch, Ballmer said "it turns out there's a lot of advantages to really being able to work with a little less public exposure than we get sometimes."

That strategy drew a number of comparisons to Apple, which also gives up few details about its press events. Ballmer was asked about Apple during a recent interview with CRN, and said that Microsoft is "trying to make absolutely clear we are not going to leave any space uncovered to Apple."

Ballmer promised that no piece of the consumer cloud and no hardware or software innovation will be left to Apple. "Not going to happen," he said. "Not on our watch."

Surface for Windows RT will be available in a 32GB and 64GB model, priced in a range "comparable" to other tablets, Microsoft said during its 18 June tablet announcement. The launch will likely fall in the vicinity of the official Windows 8 and Windows RT rollout, which is expected in October.