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During a trip to a Verizon Wireless store in Northern California earlier this week, I noticed a Windows 8 tablet sitting on a display table next to the Windows Phones. It was confined in a red security frame that made it difficult to handle in a natural way, and initially made it tough to tell which tablet it was.

There was no price tag, sign or other materials identifying the tablet, and it didn’t appear to be available for purchase. Looking at it more closely, I realized that it was, in fact, a Microsoft Surface. 

Someone else before me had switched the view from the new Windows 8 Start screen to the old-fashioned Windows desktop, with a “Windows Network Diagnostics” dialogue on the screen. The store clerks were too busy selling Androids, iPhones and iPads to reset the Microsoft device to the Start screen, let alone explain what the Surface was, why it was there or why anyone should be interested.

Worst of all, there was no sign of a keyboard cover, the signature accessory for the Surface, and even if there had been one, the frame would have kept it from being attached to the tablet.

In short, it was about the least-compelling showcase imaginable for Microsoft’s flagship Windows 8 tablet. It made the Surface feel like a nondescript commodity, not a gleaming piece of hardware that someone would want to buy.

After I got home I did some searching and saw that Surface is also being mysteriously displayed in these red shackles at other Verizon Wireless stores, without any explanation.

Apparently it’s meant to show people the similarities to the nearby Windows Phones. There has been some speculation that the displays are a prelude to Verizon selling the Surface, but without built-in mobile broadband, that seems unlikely for now.

I’ve contacted Microsoft to find out more about why the Surface is on display at Verizon, and will let you know what I hear back.

In the meantime, this is not a good thing for the company or for the Surface launch. With the salespeople busy on the other side of the store, I kept thinking back to how Microsoft and Verizon teamed up on the Microsoft Kin … and we all know how well that turned out.

Microsoft is limiting initial sales of the Surface to its own retail and online stores for the holidays, which has given the tablet an aura of exclusivity, and let the company control how the tablet is displayed and demonstrated at retail. A Surface rollout to the massive Verizon retail chain should be accompanied by lots of fanfare, or at least a sign and a chance for people to hold the device naturally and try out its signature accessory.

Verizon is turning the Surface into a sideshow, and not in a good way.

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