I will preface this post with a disclaimer to start in an effort to ward off the flaming emails. The purpose of this post is not to suggest that Microsoft should get rid of their current ecosystem of partners. It is too fast and far to important to the company and the success of their solutions. All you have to do is look at the all new Dell XPS 13 laptop and read the raving reviews it is getting to understand just how important OEMs are in the mix for Microsoft.
But equally, you can look at the Microsoft built and branded devices and see where the company could and should be more actively involved in hardware manufacturing. I’m not talking about mice and keyboards (although they do a pretty good job at that too) but rather things like the Microsoft Lumia lineup and the Surface Pro 3. Arguably the best Windows experience for their form factor are on these devices because Microsoft has intimately been involved in the hardware design of them to get the most out of the Operating System. Even with the Microsoft Band, a device that is near impossible to get because they can’t keep them in stock, produces a great experience for users. And while user experience is important, there is also the matter of controlling their own destiny when it comes to updates and improvements along with security. All of these are why I think Microsoft should look long and hard at the PC and Laptop market for their own branded devices.
When it comes to Windows Phone, there are a lot of players in the market and more coming. Just last week Acer announced they were entering back into the Windows Phone world with their new device while other new players like BLU Win. Then of course there is HTC who has had an on-and-off again relationship with Windows Phone as has Samsung. But ultimately, when it comes to providing the best Windows Phone experience, it comes down to Microsoft’s own Lumia lineup. Yes we can bemoan the fact there isn’t a new flagship phone but there are a lot of Lumia devices out there in the low and mid-range and all provide a great experience. Part of this of course is how well Windows Phone itself is optimized to take advantage of hardware but the larger context of this is that they know intrinsically how to design a phone to get the most out of the OS. Other OEMs will have some of that knowledge for sure but not all of it. Beyond the Windows Phone OS though are the applications that the Microsoft team has and continues to build for Lumias. One of the best camera apps available for Windows Phone is Lumia Camera, an app you can only get on a Lumia device. Then there are the extra services like Glance on some of the mid-range and higher end devices, again, a feature you can only get on a Lumia.
Likewise you have the Surface Pro 3, a device Microsoft designed to take full advantage of Windows 8.1 and all indications have bettered that in Windows 10. It is a device that by design brings out the best in the OS and is optimized to run Windows better. In fact I think it may be the best tablet out there for the ports it has, the power and the fact it can absolutely be your laptop. It has the power to do it day in and day out and that in large part is due to Microsoft’s design of the product. They have built an elegant, clean design that is highly functional for power users (note the ports that are available as well as the Dock solutions) but also lightweight enough for every day users to enjoy. Further, you cannot dismiss the fact that the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows. That is a huge advantage of Android and iOS tablets in the 10″ range. I admit and agree that it isn’t as big a disadvantage now given that Microsoft has developed the Office apps for iOS and Android but equally, you can argue that by running full Windows, the Surface Pro 3 creates zero learning curve for someone moving from a traditional desktop PC or laptop to this device.
Taking the examples of Lumia Windows Phones and the Surface Pro 3, you can build a case for Microsoft to design laptops and desktop PCs. These devices, no matter what pundits like to say, are not going away anytime soon, particularly in the Enterprise. If Microsoft were to put the same efforts into design – both aesthetically and functionally – into these devices, I believe they could create the best Windows experience possible. It would give them a greater level of control over updates and refreshes but also give them an added advantage of security. We all have seen the fallout from the Lenovo issues with spyware and security. Microsoft already can get you around this with the Signature PCs that you can buy at Microsoft Stores. These PCs, from a wide range of OEMs, come “crapware” free. This only creates a better user experience. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had friends or family have something pop up on their screen and they say “I hate Windows because of the pop-ups”.
You know it isn’t Windows doing the pop-ups. I know it isn’t Windows doing the pop-ups. But to the average, non-techie, it’s Windows doing it. Why? It’s the most visible part of their PC. It is the part of their PC they look at all the time. They assume anything they see there is driven by Windows. This is why Microsoft needs to continue to push their Signature program with their OEMs but also should go down the path of developing their own hardware to once-and-for-all control that user experience.
Finally, you only have to look at history for another reason for Microsoft to build and design their own hardware.
Love them, hate them, like them, loathe them, Apple does one thing extremely well. They control the user experience. They do that through controlling the hardware that the OS X and iOS experience runs on – to the point that nobody else can build systems running their software. It was an extreme reaction to what Steve Jobs determined in the late 90s as a bad Apple experience on other OEM computers. Now, as far as Apple is concerned, that ship has sailed. But for Microsoft, they could react in a slightly less draconian way and benefit themselves and Windows users. They could develop the ultimate PC that runs Windows 10 at pace and fluidity that other OEMs would be challenged to match. They could even charge a premium for that experience – which of course would be crapware free and more secure. I’m not suggesting this would be easy. The average PC shopper is very price sensitive. Literally $50 can make the difference. In this premium experience, Microsoft would have to clearly point out that it is just that and back it up with performance figures and specifically target power users for those devices. Exactly what they have done with the Surface Pro 3. Look, a $1200 PC is not unheard of. The expectation is that it will run Windows better than a $400 PC. Microsoft should capitalize on this much in the way Apple has done.
Apple charges a premium for their experience. Microsoft should do the exact same thing.
I know there are a lot of holes in my argument. As far as Apple’s closed hardware ship has sailed, likely so has the Microsoft OEM ship. It is hard to push a rope up hill and to a large extent that is exactly what would be happening in this case. But we are on the cusp of what could be the best Windows ever, Windows 10. It is going to be one platform on every device. It could bring Microsoft back into the cool kids club. I hope so, I really do. However, part of that equation to success has to be expanded hardware offerings. To do so would give Microsoft control and allow them to bring a premium user experience to Windows.
That, as much as Windows 10 is bringing to market, could make a difference in the success of the release.