Beneath Microsoft's Surface Is a Company in Transition
Microsoft's mysterious Los Angeles-based event has drawn to a close. While there were many rumors making their way through the blogosphere, just one was proven correct: Microsoft has built its own tablet. Branded as "Surface", a name that the new tablet has borrowed from Microsoft's much larger touch screen computer, the tablet and its accessories show a company in transition.
The presentation, headed by CEO Steve Ballmer, was a lesson in inconsistency from the beginning. "We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when hardware and software are considered together," Ballmer told the audience during his presentation. Then, just two minutes later (emphasis mine): "[...]Of software and hardware partners working together. Those are essential to the re-imagining of Windows."
The Surface tablet itself looks phenomenal. It's impossible to judge from a presentation and a few photos, but the underlying concepts behind Microsoft's entry into the tablet market are solid and, dare I say, groundbreaking. From a new, smarter stylus designed to make writing on a tablet as comfortable and intelligent as possible to a cover with an integrated keyboard and trackpad, anyone disappointed by Microsoft's presentation made the trip to Los Angeles expecting a pipe dream.
Yet for everything that the Surface tablet does right, Microsoft seems determined to not take a stance on the future of computing. Sure, the Surface tablet shows that Microsoft is ready to enter a post-PC world, but the company is still trying to reconcile its PC background and its post-PC future. Today's event seemed to be saying, "Look. We know you want a tablet, and we're going to give you one; but, in case you want a PC-like experience, you can have that too."
Some may call that a smart move on Microsoft's part. Windows 8 is a huge departure from the Windows of old, and many buyers might be confused at first boot – if they weren't buying a tablet. Everyone, from 3-year olds to senior citizens, expects a tablet to run a different OS from its PC counterparts. Microsoft is dragging legacy Windows into the future by its hair, promising replacement be damned. That's transition one.
Transition two is the balancing act that Microsoft needs to perform between taking control of the hardware experience and pleasing its hardware partners. Best Buy's laptop and netbooks page lists 22 different companies selling Windows PCs, and not a single one is called "Microsoft". Windows' dominance is dependent on its presence on a variety of computers from a number of OEMs, and if Microsoft wants to continue to make money off of Windows and Office, it needs to play ball with those other companies.
So on one side we have Steve Ballmer declaring the importance of hardware and software working together and saying, "It was always clear that what our software could do would require us to push hardware, sometimes where our partners hadn't envisioned." Microsoft has done that with the Surface tablet, and the company's other huge successes – the Xbox and Kinect – are proof that when Microsoft focuses on hardware it is capable of producing some good products. (Even the now-discontinued Zune, which many have considered a flop, had an interesting industrial design and helped shape what we now know as Windows Phone 7.)
On the other side is a group of manufacturers that have helped Microsoft establish its dominance in the desktop market, expecting that by playing ball with Microsoft for so long they won't be blind-sided by the company entering the hardware scene in a larger way. By releasing Surface, Microsoft has turned these hardware "partners" into competitors – one can only imagine how Microsoft plans to navigate those murky waters.
Taken at face value, this event was about the Surface and all of the cool stuff that Microsoft has been working on. Underneath all of that, however, Microsoft signalled the transition from its past to its present. The ride may be a little bumpy, but Microsoft has finally grabbed the wheel and committed to making some forward motion.