Microsoft’s Surface machines will get PC OEMs to smarten up their act

20 Jun 2012

Like most dance routines that become unfashionable after a while, the regular dance-off between Microsoft and PC makers in the last 37 years became so predictable it actually added impetus to rival manufacturer Apple’s success with its Mac and iOS products.

It was so predictable and so embedded in Microsoft’s culture – before a new OS was released to manufacture there was the traditional preview system to give developers and its partners the opportunity to get familiar. That hasn’t changed.

Manufacturers would then produce machines of varying quality – some high-end slick numbers with all the bells and whistles to really low-end cheap machines intended to sell in volume.

This was necessary – to get the numbers up and make the PC revolution happen computers needed to be affordable. In fact they will always need to be affordable.

What went missing, however, was experimentation with new form factors.

It is 14 years since Apple correctly guessed that all machines don’t need to be beige with the Bondi Blue iMac G3. And neither do all laptops need to be slate grey and made of hard plastic. Apple correctly surmised that people who can afford it would happily spend their cash on devices that match their aspirations in terms of image and quality.

The lesson wasn’t really learned by the vast OEM community who tweaked the design a little.

And pretty much in the last five years Apple gave the entire technology industry a blistering lesson in aesthetics – it started with the iPhone, then the iPad and most recently with the MacBook Air.

As Intel relentlessly drives OEMs in the direction of the promised land of ultrabooks, sleek and slim is fashionable.

But the reality is all the major manufacturers, from Dell to Samsung and Toshiba, would execute around the same form factor.

A refreshing change

There is an apparent sense of hurt palpable among OEMs since Microsoft’s big reveal of its Surface computers on Monday evening in Hollywood. Apparently Microsoft didn’t tell the OEMs about its new Surface range of tablet computers until the last minute.

There was probably a litany of good reasons for this. Firstly, Microsoft is doing this for its survival. Windows 8 is one of the biggest bets in the software giant’s near 40-year history.

More of the same unimaginative design of personal computers wouldn’t cut it with today’s tech-savvy consumer.

Neither will attempts to clone the iPad in design but with Android software as Motorola and Samsung and others have managed to do so far in the tablet computer market. It’s no wonder Apple has two-thirds of the current tablet market.

To get a sense of how samey everything had become, IBM – the company that claims to have produced the first PC in the 1980s – didn’t think twice about selling off its PC division, including the ThinkPad brand to Lenovo in 2005. Last year, HP nearly sold off its entire PC division; a sad reflection of how uninspiring PCs had become, perhaps?

So what has Microsoft done? It has learned the lesson that Apple began teaching eons ago – close the loop on the software and hardware and bring out something that I suspect will be revolutionary. Also, since Microsoft introduced the tablet genre in 2002 and the OEMs mangled the opportunity only for Apple to save the idea three years ago, it’s payback time.

Microsoft’s Surface devices

There are two versions of the Surface fleet – the first, an ARM-based tablet design will be akin to the tablet experience we are familiar with in terms of tablet apps. The second, an Intel-powered Pro version will bridge the gap between productivity based on apps and productivity based on personal computing.

The secret weapon is obvious in the Type Cover, a smart cover that has a keyboard and trackpad stitched into its design.

Another core difference is the screen dimension – 10.6 inches compared to the iPad’s 9.7 inches. Again another plus if you want to be productive.

I don’t think Microsoft has any intention of abandoning its OEMs, but rather this is a shot across the bows to smarten up and produce more desirable PCs.

But unlike Apple, which has products almost ready to go each time it announces something new, Microsoft only gave vague hints at availability (around the time that Windows 8 ships, probably October) and no indication of price.

Price will be the ultimate arbiter of the success or failure of Surface. Consumers in these recession-ridden times want devices they can afford while cash-rich and image-conscious executives want something they will look good with. Pragmatic CIOs want machines that work well with the cloud and are secure.

Microsoft hasn’t betrayed anybody. Instead it has presented a vision of where it would like to go next.

The question is whether OEMs will take the hint. Eventually the penny will drop because as Microsoft had discovered, the future depends on it.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years