It is not often that the words “cool” and “microsoft” get uttered in the same sentence. Or even in the same breath. And quite never in the same context. It is thus not trivial that the tech crowd were a bit jolted out of their microsoft cynicism when Ballmer went on stage to unveil plans of a tablet device from microsoft– one in which both the hardware and software will be provided by the software giant
Notice the inherent contradiction in the last sentence. Yet that is what is setting this initiative apart. Till now the only instance when microsoft tried doing anything linked with hardware was the Zune, which was a spectacular failure. We set that aside for a moment though not totally ignoring the fact (I hold that microsoft tried to create a music storage-playback device and chased the puck where Apple had hit it. By the time it slid to the spot, the puck had shifted to entertainment ecosystems and microsoft had no clue how to navigate). “Surface”, is a tablet device – the intention of calling it a tablet is to create a red herring. It is not a tablet in its truest form – it is a ultra portable laptop. Unveiling the ipad, Steve Jobs had mentioned that he felt there was a space between laptops and smartphones, which is where tablets found their home. What microsoft intends to do is merge the distinction between a tablet and a laptop by doing two things. One, put enough I/O ports in the slim body of the device and two, design a clever keyboard that is not obtrusive (and users don’t think of it as a keyboard). So their answer was a cover for the device that becomes a keyboard when opened up
Think how easy it will be for Apple to design and offer a similar smart-cover-cum-keyboard with its iPads. Quite easy, right? So this battle – and I hope microsoft thinks the same way – is not about the coolness of the device. It is neither about distribution because microsoft does not have retail presence in the same way as Apple does. This device also disrupts the hardware partners microsoft works with for their OS business as pure-play device makers like Dell and Lenovo have their tablet ambitions. So what strategy is this?
To my mind this is a strategy – a radical first for microsoft – of experience unification. Microsoft tasted a small, but I daresay significant for itself, success with the Windows OS (Mango, a Windows 7.5 version) on Nokia Lumia, vital to give it confidence that it may have a phone OS play left yet. With Windows 8 microsoft will go all out to provide a consistent OS experience to users of the PC, the phone and to capture middle-earth it is placing Surface as the current gold standard where it aspires all its hardware partners to reach. This OS, Windows 8, will unify user experience across multiple devices in a manner that only Apple has till now (Google also will, once we know what their Chromebooks will look like). How will this strategy stack up against Apple?
- Followers: Apple is a cult, microsoft is not. I do not see microsoft becoming one as Apple has built serious moats around its fanbase. And do not forget Andriod too – once Google and its hardware partners start serious refresh of their chromebooks
- Ecosystem: A device is just a conduit to achieve certain ends. Providing hooks to those ends are important. Computation on middle-earth devices are not intensive like they are on desktops (you wouldn’t crunch serious numbers using excel v-lookups and use link-labyrinth spreadsheets on a tablet device). Information consumption is moving to apps and consumption of entertainment artifacts like video and music is moving to proprietary distribution platforms. Microsoft’s Achilles Heel is the ecosystem or the lack thereof. And it is not trivial to build one as the third incumbent
- Distribution & Alliances: Google is the only other player which, after acquisition of Motorola Mobility, has the capability of combining both hardware and software in its device strategy. But Google’s intent around that is yet unknown and unproven more so, though it has an advantage of being the second player in that integrated play. In Apple Stores, Apple has fantastic distribution capabilities including a super efficient supply chain and 3rd party accessories partners. These are aspects of business that takes years to build (Tim Cook, current CEO of Apple ran Apple’s supply chain while Jobs was still around – that is the importance of supply chains) and that is a big moat for microsoft to haul a drawbridge over
- Enterprise: This is where microsoft has a definite advantage, provided it can establish the middle-earth device as an acceptable accessory in the enterprise market. Microsoft can – and will possibly – bring to bear its enterprise relationships to push this device. Apple had to use its fanboys to help penetrate the enterprises, which even to this date are guarded by IT Procurement chaps, who microsoft should know quite well by now
Those who are calling this microsoft move to pave ways for a fascinating battle are probably getting a little ahead of themselves. Drama value aside, early adopters rushing (and gushing) aside, I will not hold my breath for this device to conquer the battle for consumer middle-earth
Pic courtesy Microsoft website