June 19, 2012 at 7:12 PM ET
Microsoft has to do it. That's what I keep telling myself. In order to convert people from the cloud-powered "ecosystems" of Apple or Google, in order to carry Windows desktop users into the post-desktop age, Microsoft needed to introduce a product proudly emblazoned with the Windows logo, something over which it has complete design control: The perfect Windows 8 tablet.
At first look (and feel), the Microsoft Surface tablet is a solid product aimed in the right direction. Sure, it's a tablet that, from five feet away, looks like all the rest. But it's got a premium magnesium alloy build, a screen that reduces glare and improves interaction by reducing the layers between the LCD itself and the viewer's eye, and clever features like a flush built-in kickstand.
Microsoft even one-upped Apple in a way by adding a multi-touch keyboard to its own magnetically connected case, the Touch Cover. Microsoft's tablet pitch has long been, "Yes, you can touch it but sometimes you need a mouse, keyboard or stylus." At least in the keyboard category, Microsoft is now approaching the challenge with innovative thinking and a touch of class.
But for all the innovation and design smarts of the new tablet, there's no guarantee it will be a hit.
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There are still a lot of unanswered questions:
There are few hardware companies that aren't in an utter state of flux (reflux?) over the changing landscape. While Apple designs and markets both the hardware and the software itself, other companies share the work. Microsoft would release an operating system and hardware makers would build products that used it. Google has had reasonable success using the same approach with Android. But the shared approach won't last much longer.
That's because there's now this thing called the "ecosystem." Giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft are locking down customers by providing streaming music, video rental, cloud storage, email, calendars and all kinds of other services that are exclusive to their products. The more the ecosystem grows, the more control the giant needs over all of the products.
Microsoft tried a middle approach with Windows Phone. It let hardware partners build the devices, but it applied strict specifications. The result was not a success. In fact, it led to confusion: Some phones had beautiful (but small) OLED screens; others had huge (but ugly) LCDs. One phone streamed music and video to your home theater; another had a kickstand for watching movies on airplanes.
And when Nokia came along with its Windows Phone flagship, there was no clarifying moment, like when Verizon introduced the Motorola Droid and all of a sudden, Android made sense. No, the Nokia Windows Phone was just another phone — one that didn't run Android or iOS.
But even if the whole hardware-software partnership thing no longer works, how sure can we be that Microsoft is prepared to pull an Apple, and go it alone?
After all, Microsoft's hardware history is hardly a trail of gold. The company has built mice since time immemorial, but they're usually not as lauded as Logitech's. The Xbox is a hot selling console, and rightfully so, but any gamer over the age of 10 can recall the "Red Ring of Death" era, where the percentage of dud systems was remarkably high. Maybe the least besmirched of all Microsoft hardware was the Zune HD, a very nice product that sold ... not very nicely.
And Microsoft has backed out of a few hardware enterprises that turned out to be bad for business: There were the wireless routers, there was Web TV, there was the Kin.
I am not trying to pour salt on wounds that have only recently healed. I want to emphasize a key question: Why did Microsoft embark on this new hardware venture when it has so often failed in the past?
Because it has to.
Unfortunately, once you've swallowed that, there's another draught you have to gulp down: Windows 8.
I don't share in the ire that some of my colleagues have against Windows 8. However easy or difficult it is to use, its overarching problem is that it is not "Windows" as we've known it through the years.
Windows 7 is Windows. Windows 8 has the same name, but a whole new set of programs, behaviors and metaphors. Calling it, I don't know, "Tiles," instead of "Windows" might have helped, but it would have been an admission of the challenge ahead. Rather than being an upgrade of the tried and true OS, it's a brand new finger-friendly tablet OS, one that will have to get in line for paying customers behind iOS and Android.
Still, the analysts say that within a few years Microsoft will gain serious headway in the global smartphone market, and that much of this success is due to the fact that it will sell Windows 8 with the same briskness that it has of late sold Windows 7. If you buy the PC or the tablet, you'll learn to love the interface, and you'll buy the phone — or vice versa.
So how will Microsoft get people to buy the new Windows 8 PCs and tablets? By waiting for Dell or Samsung or Asus or HP to get out there and shove them in people's faces? No.
It will do it by handling the whole operation internally, and controlling the message. Microsoft must somehow reassure current Windows users (over 1 billion worldwide) that Windows 8 is not a leap of faith but a step forward. And the company must reach out to new audiences with the promise of an ecosystem that's potentially more compelling than Apple's or Google's, one that ties together home theater, laptops, phones and tablets, and offers a ton of cloud services and apps.
Microsoft will put its hardware-partner relationships at risk, but it can afford to, and really it must, if it intends to reaffirm its position of leadership in the tech world.