Yesterday Microsoft unveiled its Windows 8 tablet, the Microsoft Surface. It's certainly an impressive device, but Tech Digest's Gerald Lynch asks what Microsoft's latest venture means for the future of third-party hardware makers...
Wow! "Microsoft in cool, exciting product launch shocker!" Microsoft's first foray into own-branded tablet hardware may have been a long time coming (and long overdue in the fight against Apple's mobile dominance), but credit where it's due: the Surface tablet looks set to deliver the goods.
With a media circus of Apple-like proportions, Microsoft unveiled their Windows 8 tablet. A 10.1 inch device available in two configurations (one powered by a Nvidia ARM chip with Windows 8 RT and a "Pro" version with full-fat Windows 8 powered by an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor), it managed to set itself apart from the pack not only in terms of software as we'd expected, what with Windows 8 onboard, but in its hardware too.
Microsoft had put this altogether themselves, rather than slapping their branding on a third-party's machine. While tablets themselves aren't the easiest things to build fresh, exciting designs around any more, the super-slim keyboard/trackpad/cover combo that magnetically attached to the Surface was certainly a lust-worthy addition. Add to that a Gorilla Glass screen, full size USB connectivity and a genuinely attractive industrial design, and Microsoft seemed to tick all the boxes for a successful launch, aside from concrete pricing and release date information.
Then there was Microsoft's new approach to product design. Again like Apple, the Redmond company now seem set on having as much control as possible over their software by putting together their own tailor-made hardware to match it.
"We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience - hardware and software - are considered and working together," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the event.
"We see that combination working in our PC ecosystem. We believe in the strength of that ecosystem. Much like Windows 1 needed the mouse, we wanted to give Windows 8 it's own hardware."
It is, however, a double edged sword. On the plus side, picking up a Microsoft Windows tablet need not be the dicey exercise it once was when picking up third-party hardware. Microsoft have built the Surface from the ground up, making hardware that's a perfect match for the software they've also developed.
However, that could lead to a slippery slope for Windows' "open" nature, and could mark the first brick in Microsoft's own "walled garden" approach, one of the key factors that keep Windows users away from the temptation of Apple's OS X. If tinkerers and manufacturers alike can't play under the hood of Windows and any new hardware associated with it as Microsoft want complete control over the user experience, the lines between Microsoft and Apple's approaches to consumer freedoms will be blurred.
What could start as Microsoft's effort to guarantee a quality user experience could eventually lead to strict hardware and software guidelines. Also, even if a manufacturer comes up with an interesting hardware design, what's to say Microsoft won't now feel pressured into defending and pushing their own hardware first?
For third-party manufacturers, the Surface represents the last time that the Windows platform will be a level playing field in which to work in. Microsoft have now set a hardware precedent, and every major software release coming out of the Redmond stable will now likely be paired with a hardware release. Microsoft will always be first to deliver the latest Windows hardware, and will have had the benefit of building it behind closed doors in tandem with the onboard software. Where once third-party device manufacturers approached new builds of Windows as equally removed from the software side of things as their competitors, Microsoft now have a key advantage over them. Third party manufacturers will have to work incredibly hard to win over consumers when offered the familiar (and now certified, tried, tested and trustworthy "homegrown") Microsoft-branded gear.
Also, look at it in terms of hardware trends. Microsoft, the company whose software powers the majority of desktop machines around the world, chose to first develop a mobile tablet device. Component and accessory manufacturers who work exclusively in the confines of the desktop and PC market should take note, and heed the warning that for Microsoft, just as with Apple, stationary, traditional computing equipment will in the coming years be going the way of the dodo.
The Surface marks a line in the sand for Microsoft and the Windows operating system, with Microsoft now positioning themselves on the side that sees the user experience of the consumer more important than the freedom to tinker or having expansive hardware options. As a consumer, deciding which side of that line you want to be on could be a difficult choice to make.
[Via Tech Digest]