We now know what Microsoft’s big announcement is – a tablet called the Surface. To many this may seem like just another “me too” product from the company that used to rule the desktop, but I think a closer look is needed at what Microsoft are actually doing here.
First of all, we should really talk about the device in question. Well, all I’ve been able to glean from the Microsoft website is that the Surface will have a 10.6″ screen, use an ARM processor and run Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 specifically developed to run on ARM. It will also have an integrated case, which appears to have a soft keyboard built in. Other than that, details are thin on the ground, with Microsoft’s website simply indicating that the Surface is “coming soon”.
Owning the Platform
So, the Surface on the outset may not seem that exciting, however two things stand out.
Microsoft are launching with their own hardware. There doesn’t appear to be any co-branding associated with the Surface which makes me think Microsoft are taking a leaf out of Apple’s book and developing both the hardware and software components. This is a big step away from Microsoft’s traditional game play, which was to own the O/S but not the platform it ran on. The operating system was licensed to whomever wanted to pay. This ultimately was the difference between Microsoft and Apple; Apple (or more specifically Steve Jobs) wanted to own and control the entire platform and experience, perhaps initially at the detriment of wider market share. Gates on the other hand believed in owning only the software and letting the hardware manufacturers fight it out in the commodity market.
Of course the world has moved on and we have devices that are more integrated than ever before; Apple’s iPhone, iPad, iPod & MacBook ecosystem are continually evolving to closer look and feel, with features such as App Store, originating on mobile devices and migrating to the MacBook.
Everything converges on Windows 8. The other point to consider is that Microsoft are making a big deal about Windows 8. We’re seeing the server, desktop, mobile and now tablet versions of Windows 8 all come together into one single release that I expect will be available very close together. By harmonising the operating system, features, functionality – and more importantly control – is exercised across all platforms.
What About The Others?
HP tried to go the Microsoft route last year with the failed TouchPad. Their integration plans shown at HP Discover 2011 included high integration between desktop, PC and mobile. As we know, the device was pulled within weeks of launch after poor sales. Then there are Microsoft’s partners who are planning to bring out their own products based on Windows 8 RT – how will they be feeling today? Exactly how Microsoft’s partners will react remains to be seen.
The Architect’s View
Microsoft need some rejuvenation, but we’ve been here before with the Zune and various mobile devices. Why should we expect this product release to be any different? The only thing that stands out is Microsoft’s attempt to harmonise the O/S across all their platforms at the same time; one look and feel with presumably high integration. If they get that right, then perhaps they have a chance.