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3 Million Surface tabletMicrosoft is expected to build a little more than 3 million Surface tablets this year, a market researcher IDC has told CNET.

The number is significant, because it refers to the number of units Microsoft plans to make by the end of 2012, at least according to the analyst. And it’s a relatively large number for the new entrant into the tablet industry.

The iPad shipped 1 million iPads in its first month on the market back in 2010, which was considered a phenomenal success. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, the next big tablet on the market, sold 600,000 in its first month. Of course, there’s a difference between the number of units that are produced versus the number sold. Microsoft isn’t necessarily planning to sell the 3 million straight off. But still, for Microsoft to be betting it can eventually sell 3 million of its first version Surface tablets relatively quickly (even if it is not in a month, or even two or three) is a sign of bullishness.

The device is expected to hit the market on Oct 26.

Microsoft hasn’t had a lot of success selling its own devices. It’s typically sought to deliver software in devices that are manufactured and sold by other companies.

Apple sold 3 million iPads in its first quarter after launch in 2010, and it has sold 84 million iPads to date. It’s on track to sell 100 million by the end of the year.

The assumption here, of course, is that the IDC analyst being quoted by CNET has had some sort of briefing with Microsoft, even if CNET report didn’t say that explicitly. IDC is one of the more respected enterprise analyst groups, and Microsoft is probably courting the analyst community to prepare it for one of the biggest launch quarters in Microsoft’s history. There’s a wink-nod type of activity that happens between companies and analysts, and CNET quotes the IDC analyst’s views with the sort of authority that implies it comes directly from Microsoft.

Microsoft is also launching its new operating system, Windows 8, in October, so this is going to be a critical quarter for Microsoft.

IDC analyst Bob O’Donnell has other interesting things to say about the Surface. He said the 3 million number includes both Intel x86 and ARM-processor versions. The Surface RT tablets are built with ARM processors and will not support legacy software that runs on Windows 7. Intel-based Surface will run Windows 8 Pro and will support legacy software.

He also explained earlier reports elsewhere that Surface RT devices might go on sale for as little as $199. “There could be two ways to get Surface. Buy it outright for, let’s say, $599. Or $199 for a two-year subscription and you can get X,Y, and Z — which, oh, by the way, works out to more than $599,” he said.

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