Microsoft's Surface Endgame
Does the Surface tablet prove that Microsoft's an OEM traitor, or that it finally understands the threat from mobile computing?
On June 18, Microsoft presented its Surface tablet computers to the world. With that product introduction came a more implicit announcement: For the first time in its 37-year history, Microsoft would compete with its own OEM partners. Is Microsoft a treacherous turncoat, or is it appropriately responding to vigorous competition from Apple, Google and others? And what the devil does this mean for developers?
My take is that this move was long overdue. In fact, in a blog post for this magazine more than two years ago, I listed 12 things Microsoft had to do to succeed in the consumer sphere, with "make your own hardware" at No. 8 on the list. The reason? Microsoft needs to set an example for its OEMs, and provide pressure for them to step up their game. Years ago, design was not a major factor in computing leadership. But now, as computers and devices become much more ingrained in consumers' lives, form matters just as much as function -- which has allowed Apple to make serious inroads into Microsoft's territory.
The PC hardware business is a low-margin, commoditized game. OEMs aren't going to invest in design unless they have to. Sure, they might develop a new line of machines with designs that are highly derivative of other products out there. (Case in point: the new ultrabooks and their strong resemblance to the Apple MacBook Air products.) But the Windows ecosystem needs to go well beyond copycat efforts. Surface is all about pushing it further.
This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You
The PC software game is high-margin, so why would Microsoft delve into hardware? With Windows 8, Microsoft is selling a very different PC software experience. Without an inspiring hardware design available, at least as an option, it will be hard to win over consumers. There needs to be a stunning reference design that users can identify with, and which shows the full potential of the platform. If customers wish to spend less for a highly capable but less-fashionable machine, that's OK. It's something they will do by choice, rather than because their choices are lacking.
Make no mistake: Microsoft brought out Surface for itself. But it benefits you, as a developer, too. If you're going to invest in working with Windows Runtime (WinRT) APIs, you want the platform your apps run on to look great -- and these days, that platform includes the hardware. This goes beyond Surface. If Microsoft does its job correctly, the OEMs will come out with machines that look just as good, or better. In other words, if the OEMs win, so does Redmond. If not, then at least Microsoft has established a beachhead on a new front in the technology wars. That protects you, too.
Not All Upside
As beneficial as Microsoft's move could be for developers, there's also some danger. The Windows ecosystem is becoming more vertically integrated on Microsoft's part. Developers are still crucial to Microsoft's success, but have become a smaller variable in the equation. With the Windows Store being the only distribution channel for consumer WinRT/Metro apps, the vertical integration had already begun its voyage. Surface just takes it the last mile.
The chill that Windows OEMs felt when Microsoft introduced Surface, and the late notice OEMs received about the move, are indicative of a shift in Microsoft's priorities. Redmond is holding its cards closer, asserting greater authority and, in general, being less empathetic with partners. Given the threats Microsoft faces, that's hardly a surprising reaction; the real surprise is that it didn't happen sooner. But this "look out for No. 1" approach is a significant change, and developers ignore it at their peril.
Given Microsoft's longstanding loyalty toward us, we have customarily adopted its new APIs and technologies automatically. Now we must be more circumspect. We need to maintain our investment in the enterprise sphere and on the Windows desktop, proceeding cautiously to the consumer side, WinRT/Metro, the Windows Store and its economic model of apps priced somewhere between $0.99 and free. We have to be more versatile in terms of platform, even as we maintain a preference for Windows. Our value relies on this. We also need to look out for No. 1, because we face threats, too. There's time for reunion once we've both succeeded -- for now we both need to work on our games.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!