Microsoft has been making waves recently with its announcement of the Surface tablet and it got me thinking, “what are they doing here.” Many pundits believe this represents a dramatic shift for Microsoft. This is largely true. Microsoft has never produced any PC hardware (unless you count mice and keyboards). They have been content to write the software and let their partners make the hardware. But, now all of that has changed: Microsoft will place itself in direct competition with its partners and produce two tablet computers. What is Microsoft’s strategy here?

Apparently, Steve Ballmer thinks Microsoft should become Apple. He stated recently that he wants Microsoft to compete everywhere that Apple is competing. They do not want to leave Apple alone to gain all of the market share and profits. This seems backwards to me. What Apple did to save itself in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was to streamline the company and cut out all of the waste. Steve Jobs reduced their product line down to just a few models. Granted, the almost dead Apple of the late 90’s and the bloated mess of Microsoft today are two different beasts. Apple figured out what it did best and focused on those things. I don’t think Microsoft will benefit in the long run by letting Apple dictate to it how and where it will compete. If Microsoft is chasing Apple then it will never be a leader. Additionally, Apple only competes in areas where it has a strength (with a few exceptions, Ping anyone?), and when it sees a project isn’t worth it Apple pulls the plug. I guess if Microsoft wants to chase Apple then it makes sense for them to be producing their own hardware, but I can’t help thinking that Microsoft is not identifying the things it is best at doing and focusing on those things.

So we got it, Microsoft wants to compete with Apple, so it is going to make hardware too. But then something curious happened, Ballmer in an interview said that the new Surface tablet is “just a design point.” He wanted to reassure his hardware partners that Microsoft will continue to play nice with them even though they are going after the same thing. What? Either you are going to make a tablet and try to win or you are going to help your partners do it. This leads me to believe that Microsoft may not be completely serious about the Surface. Why would a company spend all the time, money, and effort to produce two consumer tablets just to say that they are design points? This makes no sense to me, but fits with Microsoft’s erratic behavior over the last ten years.

And then, Bill Gates makes a rare appearance on the scene. He weighs in and says that Apple may need to create device like the surface. Let’s review what the Surface is before dissecting that comment. The Microsoft Surface is actually two different devices. One is a tablet that is based on ARM architecture and will run Windows RT. This version of the Surface will not run any legacy Windows apps natively. This is essentially a start from scratch moment. A new tablet to compete with Apple and Google. This version of the slate supposedly is light, runs cool, and has all day battery life similar to other ARM based tablets. The second version of the Surface that that Microsoft announced will be based on the x86 architecture, the same used by Intel and traditional PCs. This version will run legacy apps and allow users to a more usual experience of a desktop. However, this thing is heavy, has fans, and has unknown battery life.

They are trying sell people on the fact that they should want a full desktop experience on their tablet. They think it is a selling point that people will be able to use a mouse and keyboard with the tablet. And they apparently think that having two non-compatible tablets, calling them the same thing, and marketing them together wont be confusing to anyone. To me this represents the kind of schizophrenic thought process at Microsoft, as evidenced by the fact that they apparently want to let Apple make all of their decisions for them. My guess is that Apple is not sweating the Surface.

Microsoft has stated that they see a different future for computing than Apple. Apple has famously said that they believe we are in a “post-PC” era. Microsoft has recently termed the phrase “PC plus.” The two visions are actually not that far off from each other. It is a world where traditional desktop and laptop computers take a back seat to more mobile counterparts, like tablets. Then main difference I see between the strategies of Apple and Microsoft is that Apple has gone full speed ahead. The iPad is its own device. It did not try to replicate the desktop experience on tablet. Microsoft is keeping one foot in the past. Windows 8 is meant to be run on tablets and traditional PCs. The user is given the option of switching between the new Metro interface and the old Window’s desktop. Metro is a fantastic and innovative interface. It really seems like they should have dropped the desktop from the tablet versions of Windows 8.

Microsoft will be interesting to watch over the next few years to see if they are in fact dedicated to their own hardware and to see if the strategy of competing with Apple everywhere is a wise move. If I had to guess I would say the ARM version of the Surface will be more successful than the x86 version.

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