There was a time when the idea of Microsoft building its own PC hardware seemed almost unthinkable. In the Bill Gates era and into Steve Ballmer's reign, Microsoft was always the software supplier, with PC-makers like Dell and HP and a thousand smaller parties happy to compete with their hardware. The announcement of the original Surface was a surprise, and Microsoft's purchase of Nokia a bit of a shock, but as of Tuesday it feels like the old ways are utterly over, once and for all.
The new Microsoft simply isn't willing to put the fate of Windows 10 in the hands of its hardware partners. It's targeting the most important hardware categories and building its own devices, integrating hardware and software together more closely than it has ever done before.
If this sounds familiar, it's because this is the game that Apple has been playing for years now. And there are some huge advantages to the approach. Apple controls every part of the widget. It prioritizes operating-system development around new hardware features, and vice versa. Controlling both hardware and software reduces friction at every point in the product development process. The result in the ’80s and ’90s wasn't so great for Apple--Microsoft's business model of licensing Windows to hardware makers steamrolled Apple's boutique Mac business.
But since the 2000s, Apple's approach to building products has worked awfully well. Apple benefits from a streamlined product line (compared to the entirety of the PC, phone, and tablet markets) and complete control over the entire widget. It doesn't need to prod and encourage hardware partners, each of which have their own bottom lines to worry about, to do what's right for the greater good.
Like Apple, Microsoft can offer a limited product line, and focus on the products that have the greatest impact. In this way, Microsoft gets to have it both ways: It's got control over the hardware and software that matters to it, but its hardware partners aren't going anywhere and will fill all the niches that Microsoft won't.
You've got to assume that Microsoft's hardware partners can't be thrilled by the announcement of the Surface Book, which intrudes into the mainstream PC business in a way that the Surface (and Lumia) never did. But what are they going to do, give up on Microsoft and just build Chromebooks? Microsoft knows that its partners will create products to fulfill the many markets that aren't looking to load up on $1500 laptops.
I'm not sure I buy my colleague Richard Hay's theory that Microsoft isn't building these devices to compete with OEM partners, though. This feels more like Microsoft realizing that no other company, not even a manufacturer working in close collaboration with Microsoft, can build the best-in-class products that Windows 10 deserves. The products that generate buzz, and media coverage, that suggest that Apple hasn't cornered the market on cool computer technology.
Today's Microsoft create products that are informed by its control over a far-ranging ecosystem and infrastructure. Sure, Microsoft controls the operating system, as it has for ages. Its cloud services continue to impress, linked to productivity apps that reach across all major computing platforms. And now Microsoft is proving that it can build the best hardware that runs that operating system and connects to those services.
What's the result of all of that? Better products, better experiences, and happier customers. The intense brand loyalty Apple has built up over the years isn't about marketing, it's about the company's focus on creating products and experiences that make users happy. Microsoft's had a harder time doing that, because it hasn't controlled all aspects of the widget--but now it does. The Surface Book may very well make a whole lot of people happy in a way that no PC laptop has ever made them happy before.
Sound like squishy Apple-fanboy claptrap? Let me drop a quote on you:
"We build [devices] to create and complete magical experiences. We think of ourselves in the experience business. We're not just building hardware for hardware's sake. To perfect the experience, we obsess about every choice that matters, across silicon, the hardware system, the operating system, and even the applications that run on them. When we envisioned the opportunity to create a new category, we consider both new forms and new functions simultaneously. We planned to invent new personal computers and new personal computing.”
Magical experiences? Innovating with forms and functions simultaneously? Have I just dropped a Steve Jobs quote right into the middle of the Supersite?
Nope, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that on Tuesday. This is the new Microsoft. It's got all the advantages of the old Microsoft, but now it's also added a few pages from Apple's book. That's a powerful combination, and it's the thing that impressed me most about Tuesday's Windows 10 Devices event.