Should Microsoft get into the PC hardware business?

Should Microsoft get into the PC hardware business?

Summary: In a recent interview, Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich noted that there's "a lot of discussion within Microsoft" about whether the company that makes Windows should also make PC hardware. It's a theme that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touched on as well in a memo that was leaked to the press a few months ago. The big problem with that strategy is that Microsoft doesn't dare upset its business model by competing directly with its hardware partners. But maybe there's a way around that problem.

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I really enjoyed watching this recent interview with Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich on Microsoft’s TechNet Edge. He covers a wide range of topics, but the one that got my attention is a two-minute snippet near the end, when the interviewer asks whether Mark feels that Microsoft needs to make its own desktop hardware. (If you want to see and hear this discussion for yourself, skip ahead to the 34:03 mark in the video.)

Do you think Microsoft needs to make desktop hardware or certain desktop/server PC hardware?

There’s a lot of discussion about that – not just in the industry but also within Microsoft. Should we be developing the Windows notebook or the Windows desktop? My opinion is that what’s made Windows so successful is the fact that it’s got an ecosystem with partners that are developing software and doing different things with hardware and software. And for us to kind of block all that [pause] innovation – hate to use that word because it’s so overloaded by marketing these days – to block out that playground that people have to do cool things for customers that we can’t think of or don’t have the agility to do, I think, is not the way Windows has gotten successful. I don’t think it’s even the right thing to do now, even in response to what people see as market pressures coming from other people that are doing that. …

[O]ne of the things that you have seen Windows doing over the last couple years is reaching out and working more closely with the hardware partners, with the OEMs, to make sure that the systems they deliver to users provide a good Windows experience, and not one where it’s Windows loaded up with a bunch of junk. And also that the hardware is designed and capable of running Windows the way it should be run and not “Hey, let’s save a few dollars and put in 512 meg of RAM” instead of the couple gig that really make Windows [perform well] … because when you talk about the amount of cost for that these days it’s marginal but the difference in user experience when you look at that is pretty drastic. So, I think that’s the way that we should continue to operate is to have these deeper partnerships with companies to make sure customers do get a great experience.

The fact that these discussions are happening within Microsoft doesn’t surprise me. It’s one of the most obvious responses to Apple’s success, and it’s also in keeping with what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wrote in his all-hands memo that was leaked to the press back in July:

In the competition between PCs and Macs, we outsell Apple 30-to-1. But there is no doubt that Apple is thriving. Why? Because they are good at providing an experience that is narrow but complete, while our commitment to choice often comes with some compromises to the end-to-end experience. Today, we’re changing the way we work with hardware vendors to ensure that we can provide complete experiences with absolutely no compromises.

Apple makes a handful of systems using basically the same parts, and they sell the hardware, software, and support as a package. That makes it easy for them to deliver systems that work reliably and can be supported at their stores by technicians with a minimum of training. But it also means that I have limited choices if I want to buy a system running the Mac OS. I can’t buy an Apple-powered tablet, or a small and light notebook (the MacBook Air is thin and light, but it’s not small), or a powerful and expandable small-form-factor desktop. All of those choices are available to me in the PC marketplace, but they come with other tradeoffs, such as crapware and driver hassles.

I’m skeptical that a strategy of “deeper partnerships” with OEMs can really accomplish the goal of providing “complete experiences with absolutely no compromises.” Better communication can make the next generation of PCs better than the current crop, but the nature of these partnerships means that hardware makers have different goals and philosophies and levels of execution. All those engineering meetings take time and cost money, and it takes time for the results to make it into new systems. That’s why it’s tempting to suggest that Microsoft begin manufacturing its own PC hardware. Unfortunately, that would mean Microsoft would have to compete directly with its hardware partners at the retail level and maybe even in enterprise sales. Those hardware partners bring in the majority of Windows revenue by installing Windows on new hardware. I really don’t see any way that Microsoft could work through that conflict successfully or make the risk worth the reward.

But maybe there’s a way around that roadblock. For years, Microsoft has created reference designs for hardware when it introduces a new category. They’re typically done early in an OS development lifecycle, as a way for partners to see what the new technology looks like in operation. At Microsoft-sponsored hardware conferences over the years, I’ve seen reference designs for remote controls, for Media Center devices, for phones, and for home servers. What if Microsoft created reference designs for PC hardware? What if any manufacturer could license and build PCs based on those reference designs? You could have reference designs for notebooks, for desktop PCs, for home theater systems with CableCARD tuners. The reference design would specify not just the hardware, but the software as well, meaning that customers could count on crapware-free installations and easy-to-update drivers. The idea is to build a machine specifically designed for the current version of Windows and, presumably, guaranteed to show off the operating system at its very best, with no compromises. Contract manufacturers could build the systems and make them available to any OEM, large or small, so that even small-town system builders could deliver a product that would compete with the big guys.

With Microsoft one step removed from the process, the existing OEM business model would be preserved. Reviewers would have a chance to compare big-OEM designs against the Microsoft Reference Design so that measurements of OS performance could actually concentrate on the hardware and not become muddled by variables introduced by third-party hardware and software.

Finally, this would give those big OEMs a chance to put up or shut up on their “innovation.” (and yeah, I hate that word too). Is that new Sony notebook faster or slower than the Microsoft Reference Design? Do those HP diagnostic tools improve performance or drag it down? Does Dell’s wireless utility do a better job than the built-in Windows tool? With a standard hardware platform, everyone would have a baseline against which to compare, and the real innovators would stand out

So, what do you think? Would you buy a “designed by Microsoft” PC?

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

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282 comments
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  • great so ms make hardware as bad as software

    wikey-do more trouble ......
    Quebec-french
    • Guess you have never bought an MS mouse or keyboard

      I still have my original MS mouse and a working keyboard.

      They made good input devices. I assume they would also have greater access to OS code and input if they made the devices themselves.

      I would compare them to apple at the point though.... they would have the best hardware and the crapiest options as well as the highest price.

      Know why apple lost the war? Because they went proprietary.
      Been_Done_Before
      • I did, and never did again

        I bought a Microsoft IntelliPoint mouse, I loved the way it fit in my hand - the design was great, but the cord on it carpped out in a few months. Decided I would never buy hardware with MS's name on it again...
        Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
        • Sounds like abuse to me.

          I always make sure mouse cords are away from everything including the slides on my trays. I have crimped a few in my day, hence my new precautions... but what does that have to do with the hardware?

          I have a logitech mouse i paid 80 bucks for, the wheel stopped working after a year, granted they sent me a new one, but the boards were full of people with the same issue.
          Been_Done_Before
          • Really?

            You wonder why I ask? You were insinuating that if MS made a computer that it would last because your MS mouse and keyboard are working. Just sharing my experience with their hardware, specifically their mouse, and it wasn't great.

            And because my experience differs from yours I somehow tortured my device?
            Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
          • Intellipoint Mouse

            I support 80 users, and a few are still using their Intellipoint mouses.

            You're right about the cords "crapping out"... of the dozen we bought four years ago there may be one or two still in-use. The rest have been trashed for that very reason.

            But you're also right about the Intellipoint mouse being one of the best-designed mouses out there in its price range. Even with a short in the cord that makes it fail intermittently, I still prefer the Intellipoint to most of the other mouses we buy and provide for our users.
            Your Mom 2.0
          • Mouse Cords

            Why even strap your mouse to your pc? What is wrong with the cordless mouse there are a lot of good options I too use logitech but the wireless all I have to do is replace my re-chargeables every couple of Mo. and no problems.
            zcly
          • I prefer cordless as well

            I've used cordless keyboards and mice for a few years now and it's changed how i use my computer. My bedroom system now has a huge monitor which i can use from a distance, so i can surf while in bed and watch DVD movies there as well. Not being tethered to a desk is very refreshing indeed.
            eMJayy
          • Wireless Fine for Putzing Around Only!!! ;)

            If all you do is surf the web and play Solitare, wireless mice are OK! ....but if you are a Graphics Designer or Gamer or do anything that requires precision w/o loss of control, then Wireless anything seems to follow Murphy's Law to a "T"!

            If you aren't hardwired in, the signal always drops when you most need it not to. Many a wireless mouse has gone against a wall, smashed to oblivion by a gamer or a techy using them in a critical application! ....and it seems that no matter how good they are or how much money you spend on them, something bad always happens at the wrong time! ;) ...but this is true only on PC's. Not game consoles.

            Probably the main reason is that a PC is multi use and can be doing several tasks (even some in the background). Even with a multi-tasking processor the OS (being non-human aware) can always try to do something else, when you don't want it to! :D

            In fact Vista is becoming quite famous for dropping wireless and attempting to do it's own thing with a mind of it's own!!!
            i2fun@...
        • Evidence shows otherwise

          I've used two Trackball Explorers (one for the desktop, one for the laptop) for over 10 years and they still perform as the day they were new. Greatest carpal tunnel syndrom reliever yet invented for the computer.
          professordnm
          • Same story here

            I have a Trackball Optical 1.0 that I've been using for longer than I can remember. I need to clean the little bits of dust and crud out of it and every two or three weeks, but otherwise it just keeps going and going...
            Ed Bott
          • Same Here - Trackball Optical

            The Microsoft logo is 75% worn off and it keeps working after at least nine years.
            PMC-CON
        • 5 botton mouse

          My MS Intellipoint mouse is still running strong. No trouble with its tail (cord).
          Purchased in the last centruy, before wireless was available. Had to buy adapter to fit on new computer (USB ports only - no PS2 port). Have no idea how old it is.
          Hooray! No more mouse balls to keep clean. I love it.
          mietz
        • cry baby...

          cry baby... why must everything MS be bad?
          Get over yourself and your presumptive dismissal of ideas. MS makes some great hardware, and I think the idea of a design spec has tremendous merit!
          mjc1of5
        • Wow,

          you mention you had a problem with something, especially MS related, and people come out of the woodwork to call you a baby, or you were torturing your device, or there's no possibility that that is the norm, or whatever.

          Seriously, people have devices that work great sometimes and sometimes they don't, in my case it was royal piece. And in all honesty, I didn't bash it. I loved the design, it was designed beautifully, but it died WAY to soon. So, get over it.

          I just decided with my experience I wouldn't buy any hardware with a MS logo on it ever again, and that includes a computer if they ever made one. Got it? No go persecute someone else. Geez.
          Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
        • The other side...

          Well,

          I 've bought a logitech mouse once (actually 1 year ago). It had 4 stickers (that were supposed to be pads ?) on it's bottom...
          Few months later the stickers were ripped out and I found myself scratching my favourite desk in order to mouse the mouse pointer...
          I mean... who would think to add stickers at the boottom of a mouse (especially when they are glued with glue sensitive to heat and the stickers are less than 0.3mm thin ! - We are talking about paper-thin plastic here...)
          And the best part ?
          The mouse powers off by it self from times to times (it has a mind of it's own, I guess).

          Personally, I didn't like the software that came with either, but that is a personal evaluation only...

          Now I started to miss my old MS mouse that died after long and heavy duty. I guess I 'll buy a new one these days...

          Personally I prefer mouses WITH cord and thin to hold them easily. This may be fine for me :

          http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/mouseandkeyboard/productdetails.aspx?pid=009

          I think that MS should try to enter the hardware world only if they are well prepared for it, carefull and moving in small and steady steps to produce quality products.
          And I think that they can do all these...
          It's their call. Let's see what they 'll decide to do!
          :)
          ghost_ghost
      • .. that was the old Microsoft.

        If they build any new hardware like they designed and build the xBox360, then you'll be guaranteed that it will overheat within a year.

        They'll deny its a design or quality problem as long as possible.
        Fyrewerx
        • ...sounds like the new Apple

          [i]They'll deny its a design or quality problem as long as possible.[/i]

          Sounds like the new Apple. 3G problems anyone?

          These days it's getting harder and harder to tell the two companies apart.
          Badgered
          • I don't recall Apple denying 3G problems? I mean

            I would have thought that would have been brought up by
            people like NonZ and Sleeper often in fact continuously? I do
            recall reading there is a problem and Apple is on it. However
            I do not recall any statement that denies the problem at least
            from Apple?

            Pagan jim
            James Quinn
          • Jim.............................

            [i]I don't recall Apple denying 3G problems?[/i]

            This is not the original story... I'll try to find that later... but read the last sentence from this post:

            http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-10015301-37.html

            "Apple has refused to acknowledge any issues with the iPhone 3G."

            or:

            http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2008/08/iphone_chipset.html

            "Apple has refused to acknowledge the issue: AT&T's spokespersons deny any widespread problems; iPhone 3G users have to pay for 3G service that many (most) are not able to access due to the faulty iPhone,"
            Badgered