Microsoft’s announcement that it would abandon longtime OEM partners in favor of building a tablet with internal resources did not go over well with the partner community. The negative reaction from some partners is understandable, given that Microsoft will now compete with some of them head-to-head rather than as a supplier to the partners’ own efforts.
I don’t see how Microsoft’s actions can be construed as anything but an indictment of its partners. Through this action, Microsoft has made it clear that it has lost faith in the ability of its OEMs to create devices that are compelling enough to compete with the monolithic Apple juggernaut.
Personally, I’m surprised that it’s taken Microsoft this long to come to this conclusion. For quite some time, Windows OEMs have tried and failed to compete with Apple in the nascent tablet space, but so far nothing has worked. The iPad keeps growing in popularity, while the rest of the industry simply watches from the sidelines. In recent years, it seems that we’ve been witnessing a race to the bottom in the Windows space as OEMs try to make things cheaper and cheaper. The few standout attempts to raise the bar (i.e. Dell Adamo) have been largely unsuccessful.
To be fair, Microsoft has been a part of the problem. The Windows experience has never translated well to form factors beyond the laptop, which has limited the ability for OEMs to unleash their creativity while still making a device that bears some semblance of usability.
This all began to change when Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7, a complete reimagining of the company’s mobile platform. Suddenly, Microsoft had a mobile operating system that was getting <gasp> good reviews from the press. While certainly not a market success as of yet, the good press showed that Microsoft was on to something.
Now, as the world awaits, Microsoft is finalizing development of Windows 8, the operating system on which the company is pinning its future. Gone are the relics of the past, such as the Start menu. In place of these are new elements derived from the Windows Phone platform and its ability to transition users to a touch interface in new form factors. With the new user experience paradigm comes a major opportunity for the company to reshape its future and to recapture some of the glow that has lately gone to Apple.
Simply put, Microsoft has had to reinvent itself.
While Windows 8 is certainly a bold departure from what we’ve come to expect from the company, it’s clear to see that it is part of a broader strategy to unify the desktop and mobile user experiences in a compelling way. With the risk being so great — and make no mistake, Windows 8 is a risk — it seems that the company felt that it needed to “pull an Apple” and make an attempt to own the full stack, from the hardware to the software to the ecosystem around it. And that is exactly what is happening with the Surface.
With this product, Microsoft will own it from top to bottom and will be able to deeply control how its used and what goes into it. The company will not suffer the bad press of some OEM deciding to make a few extra bucks by loading the system down with bloatware. Microsoft will not suffer from corners cut by partners in an effort to bring down costs or squeeze margins a bit. In other words, Microsoft will be master of its own destiny. Of course, this also means that Microsoft is on the hook to deliver.
And therein lies a challenge.
The main problem with Surface is that it doesn’t really exist yet. For all intents and purposes, it’s vaporware. Sure, the company has some prototypes floating around, but the device itself — heck, even the operating system — is still in development, and there’s no word on when it will be available en masse. Microsoft hasn’t even yet provided clues as to how much the unit will cost.
Here’s the risk I see in Microsoft’s strategy to announce Surface before it’s fully baked: If it changes its mind and decides to abandon the product, as it did with Courier a couple of years ago, it will have a lot of annoyed partners and will be no further along in the market. For that reason alone, Microsoft has to make sure that Surface comes to successful fruition and that it hits a home run with the product.
Personally, I believe that the days of announcing a product and then shipping it six months later are over, or at least they should be. Apple has redefined what needs to be done when announcing a product, and other companies — Microsoft included — should follow its example. When Apple releases a new product, it’s almost always “available today” or, at least, available very soon, even if there are some delays due to high demand. There is generally little to no ambiguity about whether or not the product will even make it to market. Moreover, Apple tells everyone exactly how much the product will cost.
Action Item: While it’s admirable that Microsoft wants to drive more quality into the Windows experience, I believe that its announcement of Surface was premature and should have been held until the company was closer to having critical details, such as specific pricing and a ship date that users could anticipate. As it stands now, Surface is vaporware, the hype Microsoft enjoyed with the product announcement will gradually fade, and Microsoft will have lost a great opportunity to expose people to the un-iPad.
I hope that Microsoft can rekindle the Surface interest once the product becomes generally available. While I am a big fan of what Apple has placed into the market, strong competition from Microsoft will only force Apple to keep pushing the envelope. Competition is good for any market.
I’m also a big fan of Microsoft and truly want to see the Windows ecosystem move into the future that is being defined right now. If the company can succeed with both Windows 8 and Surface and if the ecosystem comes together, the future is bright for everyone.