With prices and availability announced today for their new line of tablets, Microsoft have gingerly dipped their toe into a whole new world. Their ownership of the whole product, from hardware to software to sales, is arguably even more interesting than the products themselves (though I’ll admit those are intriguing as well). With the latest move making them Surface’s sole distributor, Microsoft are firing yet another warning shot across the bows of OEMs, whose purchasing experiences are, on the whole, laughably bad.
The most surprising thing to me is that it’s taken them this long to gather the stones. I’ve heard that Microsoft have been extremely cautious with the Surface rollout in order to not upset their OEM partners. Word is that’s the reason for the price point delay, even. On the face of it, it makes sense. In fact, it would seem ridiculous for them not to consider these partners before striking out on their own. They’re testing the water, not jumping in headfirst.
Except jumping in headfirst is exactly what they should be doing. At the moment, Microsoft is still the biggest OS install base in town, with (I’d think) a ton of leverage in the desktop and laptop space. I mean, if they piss of OEMs, what’s the worst that happens? OEMs switch to Linux for their PCs? Or put stock Android onto shoddy tablet hardware instead of Windows? If Microsoft truly care about quality (and it really seems like they’re trying, here), they’ll start making and selling even more hardware, competing directly with their OEM partners. And if they get dumped, so be it. They still have the marketshare (at least in the desktop/laptop space) that becoming the sole proprietor of Microsoft software/hardware has the potential to survive and perhaps even thrive. I mean, it’s worked before.
This is an important moment in Microsoft’s history. It’s time for them to grab their brand by the horns and take it back from the OEMs who have run it into the ground with inconsistent specs, piss-poor industrial design and customer-unfriendly purchasing experiences. With the Surface as the first step, Microsoft have the opportunity not only to re-energize their brand name, but also to form deeper, more meaningful relationships with their customers. It’s an important inflection point and I hope they capitalize on the momentum they’ve arguably spent years gaining (with Zune and XBox). At the very least, it will be interesting to watch.