Microsoft Surface: Why hardware really matters again

Summary:Getting its Surface tablet right is critical for Microsoft, but also reflects how hardware has become important all over again.

Microsoft has barely started to even show off its Surface tablet, but chief executive Steve Ballmer is already talking about plans for more hardware.

Surface
The Surface tablet could be the start of new wave of hardware products from Microsoft. Image: CNET

"Is it fair to say we're going to do more hardware? Obviously we are... Where we see important opportunities to set a new standard, yeah, we'll dive in," Ballmer told the BBC.

Since when did hardware get to be cool again? For years we've been told that all the innovation is now in the software; that with the advent of the cloud, it doesn't matter which hardware we use because we'll still be able to get access to everything we need.

True, hardware is becoming commoditised when it comes to the enterprise . And yes, browser-based apps are a standard part of our tech world. And yet, in terms of the smartphone, tablet or desktop, the hardware we use has become even more important than ever.

Microsoft has made hardware before of course — the Zune, Kin phones and the Xbox (well, one out of three ain't bad) — so this is not a complete revolution. Whether Microsoft is thinking about tablets or even phones remains to be seen, but Ballmer's comment shows how the competitive landscape has changed.

Much of this is a response to Apple, and a lesser extent to Amazon and Google and the products and services they are creating.

Mobile revolution

For a long time, Microsoft could be relaxed about the hardware side of things. That was because whatever the hardware it was that was out there, it would have to run Windows.

The runaway success of tablets and smartphones (not to mention the 'bring your own device' movement) has made that relaxed stance look somewhat flat-footed.

The iPad, Kindle Fire and Chromebooks (plus the iPhone and any number of Android devices) have shown why hardware still matters. Control the primary hardware used by consumers, and you can build an ecosystem out from there — whether that's selling music, books, films or apps.

Control the hardware, and you control the wallet ( sometimes literally in the case of smartphones).

Microsoft pretty much won the operating system battle, but now the war has moved on, and the hardware is now a key battlefield again. That's why much depends on the success of Surface and the hardware that might follow it.

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Software, Windows

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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