Microsoft Has Finally Taken A Stand Against Janky OEMs

From way back — years ago, on then-popular Internet forums — I vehemently argued that Microsoft needs to either highly regulate OEMs, or manufacture its own hardware (and this wasn’t even in the context of tablets at the time; prior to Windows 8, the bigger issue was the complete lack of touch usability). Rather, OEMs made sub-par hardware, provided a terrible customer experience, loaded up their machines with bloatware, and at times failed to produce adequate drivers for their hardware, causing instability issues for the end-user. And, partially wrongfully — they still could have taken more action to prevent it — many users blamed Microsoft for these shortcomings.

Fast forward to now, Microsoft has realized that the tablet space will be a very crucial part of their business in the years ahead. They have built Windows 8 primarily with touch in mind, taking a relatively big risk with some of the major changes they have made to the OS. They have also realized that, during such a critical time for them as they adapt to the changing ecosystem, they cannot completely entrust their fate in OEMs. Finally, they have taken matters into their own hands.

Now, while I do have some criticisms towards both the event itself and the actual Surface devices that were announced, it’s important to realize that this is a colossal step in the right direction for Microsoft in many ways.

The event took place at a highly suitable venue: Milk Studios, a noteworthy photo studio that could have had the keynote easily mistaken for a fashion runway event. The lighting was excellent, and the slides were elegant and simple while still looking like Microsoft. But not the clumsy Microsoft that we have come to know; rather, the slides help to depict the new era that the company is kicking off.

Thankfully, Microsoft did not deploy any of their notoriously embarrassing tomfoolery, such as that Tweet Choir from CES, or that inappropriate joke about genitals and the innuendo of the company name.

Something else worth noting is the secrecy that surrounded this event. Shortly after the cryptic invitations to the keynote were sent out to the press, AllThingsD and some other noteworthy sites began to report that Microsoft were building their own tablet. However, there were no solid leaks or specifics revealed about the actual device.

Now, that being said, there were also a few negative things about the event. For one, they didn’t reveal some very critical details about the devices; we’re still in the dark on availability, pricing and battery life, all of which are critical things that people consider when purchasing a tablet.

It’s absolutely ridiculous that not only is there no official word from the company on when these tablets will be available, but we also cannot preorder them. That brings us to the timing of the event: If Microsoft for whatever reason felt unable to announce these details or even make the tablet available for preorder for that matter, why couldn’t they have waited until they were able to? I fail to see how this was time sensitive in that regard. If the timing was so that they could overshadow Google’s I/O event, it wasn’t worth it in my opinion; they should have just waited.

Moving on to the devices themselves. There will be two Surface tablets: The first is an ARM-based Windows RT tablet that’s aptly named Surface RT. As it is targeted towards the iPad, Android tablets, and other Windows 8 ARM devices, it will likely be competitively priced and endowed with considerable battery life. The second tablet — Surface Pro — is Intel-based and will run a full-fledged copy of Windows 8 Pro. This is more of an ultrabook competitor, so it will be obviously more expensive with less battery life than its ARM counterpart.

As you can see, they just couldn’t resist doing two highly Microsoft-y things here: Confusing customers with SKUs, and terrible branding. Now people will have to educate themselves about the differences between the Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets. They may even assume that due to the higher price tag and use of the word “Pro” with the Surface Pro tablet, the Surface RT is inadequate for their needs when really they just want a tablet for content consumption purposes. It’s even more confusing because the legacy desktop is still present in Windows RT and may lead consumers to believe that they can run all desktop apps on their ARM device, but that’s for another post.

And what’s with the recycling of the Surface brand? When you think of a surface, you think of a generally larger area such as a table or countertop. But a tablet? Did Microsoft want to capitalize on what consumers may have already known about the Surface branding?

WAIT. I’m going to stop quibbling about SKUs and branding. Microsoft has finally stood up to the OEMs that have continually besmirched their software products, and, in the process, (hopefully) set the bar for actually good hardware. Considering that they’ve done something this radical, it’s only a matter of time before they begin to simplify their product names as well.

Now, unlike Apple’s hilarious dick move of not informing carriers about iMessage until it was announced, Steve Ballmer did mention while speaking with The Verge that OEMs were informed about the company’s decision to make their own hardware. He also noted that they might “opine”; sounds like some may not be happy. Here’s hoping that rather than whine about it, they proceed to actually make good hardware.

And, to be clear, there’s nothing unfair or uncompetitive going on here. Microsoft isn’t doing anything dodgy, and have clarified that they will be playing by the same rules as the OEMs in their press release: “OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT.”

It will be awesome if the Surface is really as sturdy and well-built as they described, as these are two very important qualities that the iPad excels at. A high-scoring bit on the build quality test will certainly be testing the kickstand to verify that it is similar to the door on a luxury automobile. I think that the Touch Covers were also a great idea. Whether or not you agree with Microsoft that tablets should be accompanied by external keyboards, you have to admit that their execution on this vision is really well-done.

From an aesthetic point of view, the darker shade of grey that the tablet is in can look slightly boring in some photos, but that’s okay. I’m sure it’s nicer in person. It still looks much better than any of the Windows RT tablets that OEMs have shown off thus far (and probably will show off in the foreseeable future). It also looks pretty unique; you can easily tell it apart from an iPad, or from Samsung tablets that look like the iPad. Strangely enough, it didn’t need to be designed by lawyers to achieve this.

I’ll reserve further commentary on the hardware for when I actually get some hands-on time with it, but I’ll conclude the post with this:

Holy shit, Microsoft is actually making their own tablet.

Image Courtesy: Surface, The Verge

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Paul Paliath

Paul Paliath is a designer. You should follow me on Twitter here.

  • addvocate

    If you ask me, it’s the OEMs that killed Vista. Sure, it wasn’t as polished as w7, but I will argue to the death that I went above recommended requirements when I built my computer in 2006. Now, I upgraded to w7 a few years ago because they were offering that $30 deal, but I can honestly say I was satisfied with Vista. I only experienced one BSOD in the three years I ran it, and that wasn’t the OS’s fault – I only had 2GB of memory installed at the time and was running engineering applications. Vista ran great on the first-gen (2006) Core 2 Duos and the Athlon II offering from AMD, with no less than 2GB of memory (4GB if you like to have a lot open at once) and decent graphic capabilities (even the newer integrated graphics didn’t have an issue with Vista.)

    Queue the awful OEMs. Microsoft made the mistake of assuming these cheapwad junk-mills would follow the recommended requirements, not the minimum requirements. They needed to release the recommended requirements as the minimum. They should have known very well that their filthy OEMs would just take all the Windows XP machines off the shelf, cram Vista on them and ship them to the big-box retailers to be sold for mere few-hundreds of dollars into lives of eternal frustration for the consumer. You’re right, most of this was not Microsoft’s fault, and I’ve been saying the same all along. Microsoft’s bipolar open-closed personality is actually the reason I stay on the Windows platform – god forbid having to deal with Apple’s obnoxious walled garden approach to consumer electronics – it doesn’t work in business and I have too much to do. That said, it has been a long time since one could walk into a brick/mortar store & walk out with a decent computer. HP is most at fault in dismantling the Windows brand reputation (esp. their god awful laptops), they just made utter crap with no intelligence in engineering. Dell has been too busy trying to both cut costs into oblivion and create cheap, ill-thought out copies of other’s products and has forgotten how to innovate – if that ability was ever there to begin with. And Acer should just switch to making children’s toys and stop buying up all the failed OEMs in an attempt to sell a bunch of brands while using the same “look at it the wrong way and it breaks” garbage designs.

    Microsoft has made some corporate mistakes in the last decade that are astounding. They steered away from enterprise (big money) to consumer electronics (big money if you can swing your marketing & design like Apple, dead effing broke otherwise), after the C-Suite steered them away from that technology when it was actually time to make these new ultra-portable devices. Now that they finally realize this and are thinking “inside” the box (where their current paying clients are), they can return to profitability doing what they do best – pissing off every corporate, educational & healthcare IT worker in the nation and making insane profits while doing so.

    I think these shoddy OEMs actually were a (silent) major push in the consumer migration to these ultra-mobile devices (although I think the buzzwords/marketing/fads need to die down quite a bit before I’m willing to put any money on where this industry will be going – don’t forget we have AT&T and Verizon gunning down mobile internet innovation with plan costs as high as your car payment, dodging infrastructure investment as much as possible, providing access to no real amount of bandwidth and banging the FCC to keep new technologies at bay.) Think about it… consider everything Dell, HP, et al have ever told you in marketing of their laptop devices… even the most thin/light/portable/etc. Has any user, consumer or businessperson alike, ever been able to get what they’ve expected from these companies awful laptops? Personally, I’m shocked if I get HALF the battery hours a laptop is advertised at, despite turning the brightness to “can’t see shit”, keeping the wireless card off and doing nothing more intense than a text file, we’ve come to just expect pure shit because all these companies do is release shit after shit after shit product. If Dell would have used their heads instead of their cost cutters, they would have realized that maaaaybe, just maybe a 95W processor is a bit much for a laptops battery and heat capacity. Often, the difference between that and a more efficient option is less than $5. Sad, I know.