Why the Microsoft Surface tablet could mean trouble for third-party hardware makers

Gerald Lynch Columns & Opinion, Features, Microsoft, Tablet, Tech Digest news, Windows 8 4 Comments

02-microsoft-surface-190612.jpgWow! “Microsoft in cool, exciting product launch shocker!” Microsoft’s first foray into own-branded tablet hardware may have been a long time coming (and long overdue in the fight against Apple’s mobile dominance), but credit where it’s due: the Surface tablet looks set to deliver the goods.

With a media circus of Apple-like proportions, Microsoft unveiled their Windows 8 tablet. A 10.1 inch device available in two configurations (one powered by a Nvidia ARM chip with Windows 8 RT and a “Pro” version with full-fat Windows 8 powered by an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor), it managed to set itself apart from the pack not only in terms of software as we’d expected, what with Windows 8 onboard, but in its hardware too.

Microsoft had put this altogether themselves, rather than slapping their branding on a third-party’s machine. While tablets themselves aren’t the easiest things to build fresh, exciting designs around any more, the super-slim keyboard/trackpad/cover combo that magnetically attached to the Surface was certainly a lust-worthy addition. Add to that a Gorilla Glass screen, full size USB connectivity and a genuinely attractive industrial design, and Microsoft seemed to tick all the boxes for a successful launch, aside from concrete pricing and release date information.
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Then there was Microsoft’s new approach to product design. Again like Apple, the Redmond company now seem set on having as much control as possible over their software by putting together their own tailor-made hardware to match it.

“We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience – hardware and software – are considered and working together,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the event.

“We see that combination working in our PC ecosystem. We believe in the strength of that ecosystem. Much like Windows 1 needed the mouse, we wanted to give Windows 8 it’s own hardware.”

It is, however, a double edged sword. On the plus side, picking up a Microsoft Windows tablet need not be the dicey exercise it once was when picking up third-party hardware. Microsoft have built the Surface from the ground up, making hardware that’s a perfect match for the software they’ve also developed.

However, that could lead to a slippery slope for Windows’ “open” nature, and could mark the first brick in Microsoft’s own “walled garden” approach, one of the key factors that keep Windows users away from the temptation of Apple’s OS X. If tinkerers and manufacturers alike can’t play under the hood of Windows and any new hardware associated with it as Microsoft want complete control over the user experience, the lines between Microsoft and Apple’s approaches to consumer freedoms will be blurred.
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What could start as Microsoft’s effort to guarantee a quality user experience could eventually lead to strict hardware and software guidelines. Also, even if a manufacturer comes up with an interesting hardware design, what’s to say Microsoft won’t now feel pressured into defending and pushing their own hardware first?

For third-party manufacturers, the Surface represents the last time that the Windows platform will be a level playing field in which to work in. Microsoft have now set a hardware precedent, and every major software release coming out of the Redmond stable will now likely be paired with a hardware release. Microsoft will always be first to deliver the latest Windows hardware, and will have had the benefit of building it behind closed doors in tandem with the onboard software. Where once third-party device manufacturers approached new builds of Windows as equally removed from the software side of things as their competitors, Microsoft now have a key advantage over them. Third party manufacturers will have to work incredibly hard to win over consumers when offered the familiar (and now certified, tried, tested and trustworthy “homegrown”) Microsoft-branded gear.

Also, look at it in terms of hardware trends. Microsoft, the company whose software powers the majority of desktop machines around the world, chose to first develop a mobile tablet device. Component and accessory manufacturers who work exclusively in the confines of the desktop and PC market should take note, and heed the warning that for Microsoft, just as with Apple, stationary, traditional computing equipment will in the coming years be going the way of the dodo.

The Surface marks a line in the sand for Microsoft and the Windows operating system, with Microsoft now positioning themselves on the side that sees the user experience of the consumer more important than the freedom to tinker or having expansive hardware options. As a consumer, deciding which side of that line you want to be on could be a difficult choice to make.

By Gerald Lynch | June 19th, 2012





  • alxlr8

    I think you need to ask what it means for consumers to have freedom. There are necessary freedoms – the ability to choose from a series of applications, the ability to choose where and when you get your computer out and use it – and then there are frivolous or unnecessary freedoms – the ability to hack the registry, the ability to download illegally pirated material etc, the ability to put a port of another OS onto your hardware. Most of these latter so-called “freedoms” are the domain of people like you and me, who have the skill to perform these changes. We would buy a product that allows us to do this if we are hell-bent on doing so, although you'd have to question the necessity to have this capability – I think a lot of people do this just because they can, rather than because they have to.

    The vast majority of consumers – people who don't read tech sites like this in detail – want a product that works, that gives them ecosystem components they can understand and value, and that sews all of this up in a cohesive package that can pervade their lives. These ecosystems within themselves provide competition within the important things – there will be a dozen apps that do the same thing in the app store, so pick the one you like, for example. There is also competition around which ecosystem a consumer should adopt. Once ecosystem is pitted against ecosystem, they then need to innovate and compete with each other on what makes an ecosystem great, rather than just what makes the OS, or the hardware, great.

    Microsoft can see that having an ecosystem is what makes Apple the largest company on Earth. But it isn't just ecosystem. Apple have made friends with their customers, by having exclusive retail and advertising environments that avoid mixing their products up with those of others, and that clearly communicate the benefits, as opposed to just the implementation: e.g. a tablet isn't just 9mm thin machined aluminium and glass; it's thin and light so you can carry it with you and hold it in your hand.

    I'm impressed that this part of Microsoft is moving with the times. No one is saying that ecosystem is the way of the future forever, but in this wave of computing ecosystem is king, and to compete that's where you need to be. Microsoft are going there, and if it's at the expense of a few broken noses in Taiwan, I'm not sure they really care.

    • http://twitter.com/fteoOpty64 fteoOpty64

       Good post. Android OS already gives the required freedom to the user and if Win8 offers it, then good for them. As for the ecosystem, a large library is not necessarily a good thing. There is a need for a minimum library of FREE apps that is out there like facebook, twitter, etc bookreaders, pulse, news readers …some games as games will organically grow with the business potential.

      The device itself needs to be very good and priced accordingly so it can attract consumers who are on the borderline in choice. In the PC industry, the OEMs will offer choice when they see Surface hardware as they know it is a “reference” system and they can add all the “bells and whistles” they wanted and are good at that.

      With a wide open market with many competing products and few functional differences, it becomes more difficult to carve a niche without a brandname and solid built quality. Just look at Samsung and HTC in handsets. HTC has great built quality but sacrifice features (no microSD slot) while Samsung gives all the extras but uses plastic casing and removable battery. Such compromises in effect, “force” users into a choice and it becomes clear when they use the product if the choice were right or not. There are differentiations in product build and features for even a rectangular tablet but manufacturers tend to follow the basic principle, hence eliminate what is really needed. Like  a tablet with 2 miroSD slots and a full sized SDcard slot ?. There is plenty of demand for such but not ONE tablet has it. Why ?.

  • alxlr8

    I think you need to ask what it means for consumers to have freedom. There are necessary freedoms – the ability to choose from a series of applications, the ability to choose where and when you get your computer out and use it – and then there are frivolous or unnecessary freedoms – the ability to hack the registry, the ability to download illegally pirated material etc, the ability to put a port of another OS onto your hardware. Most of these latter so-called “freedoms” are the domain of people like you and me, who have the skill to perform these changes. We would buy a product that allows us to do this if we are hell-bent on doing so, although you’d have to question the necessity to have this capability – I think a lot of people do this just because they can, rather than because they have to.

    The vast majority of consumers – people who don’t read tech sites like this in detail – want a product that works, that gives them ecosystem components they can understand and value, and that sews all of this up in a cohesive package that can pervade their lives. These ecosystems within themselves provide competition within the important things – there will be a dozen apps that do the same thing in the app store, so pick the one you like, for example. There is also competition around which ecosystem a consumer should adopt. Once ecosystem is pitted against ecosystem, they then need to innovate and compete with each other on what makes an ecosystem great, rather than just what makes the OS, or the hardware, great.

    Microsoft can see that having an ecosystem is what makes Apple the largest company on Earth. But it isn’t just ecosystem. Apple have made friends with their customers, by having exclusive retail and advertising environments that avoid mixing their products up with those of others, and that clearly communicate the benefits, as opposed to just the implementation: e.g. a tablet isn’t just 9mm thin machined aluminium and glass; it’s thin and light so you can carry it with you and hold it in your hand.

    I’m impressed that this part of Microsoft is moving with the times. No one is saying that ecosystem is the way of the future forever, but in this wave of computing ecosystem is king, and to compete that’s where you need to be. Microsoft are going there, and if it’s at the expense of a few broken noses in Taiwan, I’m not sure they really care.

    • fteoOpty64

       Good post. Android OS already gives the required freedom to the user and if Win8 offers it, then good for them.
      As for the ecosystem, a large library is not necessarily a good thing. There is a need for a minimum library of FREE apps that is out there like facebook, twitter, etc bookreaders, pulse, news readers …some games as games will organically grow with the business potential.

      The device itself needs to be very good and priced accordingly so it can attract consumers who are on the borderline in choice. In the PC industry, the OEMs will offer choice when they see Surface hardware as they know it is a “reference” system and they can add all the “bells and whistles” they wanted and are good at that.

      With a wide open market with many competing products and few functional differences, it becomes more difficult to carve a niche without a brandname and solid built quality. Just look at Samsung and HTC in handsets. HTC has great built quality but sacrifice features (no microSD slot) while Samsung gives all the extras but uses plastic casing and removable battery. Such compromises in effect, “force” users into a choice and it becomes clear when they use the product if the choice were right or not. There are differentiations in product build and features for even a rectangular tablet but manufacturers tend to follow the basic principle, hence eliminate what is really needed. Like  a tablet with 2 miroSD slots and a full sized SDcard slot ?. There is plenty of demand for such but not ONE tablet has it. Why ?.