What OEMs desperately need to learn from Microsoft's Surface

What OEMs desperately need to learn from Microsoft's Surface

Summary: This week, Microsoft crossed a line it has maintained for three decades. With its new Surface PCs for Windows 8, it will compete directly with the OEMs who license Windows. Why now? Because those OEMs desperately need a challenge.


Microsoft is not throwing its OEM partners under the bus. It is pushing them out of the way of an onrushing freight train.

See what I did there? I substituted one violent transportation-based metaphor for another. That was deliberate. So was Microsoft's unprecedented decision to cross a line it has maintained for three decades.

See also: How the tech press reacted to Microsoft Surface

Why now? What changed? Why did Microsoft decide the time has come to compete directly with its OEMs? Why design its own line of tablet PCs, to be sold in Microsoft stores under the Surface brand?

Back in 2006, Microsoft and the OEM community collectively failed with Windows Vista. Microsoft delivered a messy glop of code that didn't work well until Service Pack 1, and the OEMs were embarrassingly unprepared with drivers and designs. The OEMs also insisted on packing their products with performance-sapping crapware.

For Windows 7, Microsoft got its act together. OEMs, on the other hand, barely stepped up their game. Although they're not as dire as their Vista-era counterparts, most Windows 7 PCs are dull, and many of them are still laden with performance-sapping crapware.

Pop quiz: Name a drop-dead gorgeous Windows 7 PC. You probably can't. If you do think of one, you probably have a list of caveats for it.

Microsoft can't afford to send Windows 8 into the world—and especially into the hands of reviewers—on mediocre hardware. Which is why the company has been laboring with NSA-grade security for three full years to design the hardware that debuted last Monday in Los Angeles.

That previously top-secret design and engineering work is a detailed roadmap for OEMs in how to survive the transition to a post-PC world. If they keep building the same old mediocre designs, they're roadkill. Apple will ensure that.

Every OEM I've ever talked to brags about how they innovate with their hardware designs. But that "innovation" usually manifests itself as yet another vaguely differentiated generic notebook with too many software utilities and a crappy trackpad. (Sony is one of the few companies that knows how to surprise with hardware.)

What was most interesting about Monday's announcement was how much attention Microsoft has paid to obsessively working to get things that work really well:

  • Those new covers don't just include a keyboard—they've been engineered so that they can distinguish between typing and inadvertent movements.
  • There's a slim vent that runs around the entire outer edge of the Surface for Windows 8 Pro. That vent allows heat to dissipate (quietly, one hopes, with little or no fan noise) no matter where you're holding the device.
  • Watching the magnetic catch on the cover as it makes its mechanical connection to the Surface is nothing short of miraculous. It's the feature that early adopters will show their friends when they ask, "Why is this thing special?"
  • I think you could probably fold and unfold that kickstand 10,000 times without affecting its latch. That's how firm and solid it is in action.
  • In your hands, the feel of this device is nothing short of astonishing. It's light, but it doesn't torque in the slightest.

Can you point to any similarly impressive engineering feats in any current PC design from one of the leading OEMs?

At the Monday event, Microsoft didn't show off the full hardware-and-software experience. Partly that's because the software is not yet ready. I noticed a slight jerkiness in the transitions when flipping through apps on the device. That's a driver issue, I was told, and it will certainly be fixed before the production units go out the door.

Many observers noted, correctly, that no member of the press was allowed to type on any of the keyboard covers at Microsoft's event. The reason seems pretty obvious if you think about it:

Every PC keyboard design is different and takes some time to adjust to. The soft Touch Cover design is unlike anything I've ever seen before. Even the most accomplished typist would probably need a few minutes to adjust, and the first attempts would be less than perfect. Add a limited demo window and early-stage drivers to the mix and you have a recipe for disastrous coverage.

There will be plenty of time to review the performance of both keyboards in excruciating detail later, using hardware from the actual assembly line and software that's been tuned for the device.

The most interesting takeaway from this week's torrent of Surface-related posts is that the reactions followed a predictable pattern: Those who were there, who actually had the chance to see and touch these new devices, were impressed. Those who weren't there are far more skeptical.

Count me in the first group. As I said in my post-event report, this unveiling made a solid first impression. Even the skeptics should be eager to see how these devices evolve over the next month or two.

OEMs can whine all they want about Microsoft's decision to engineer their own hardware. But maybe when they're through whining they can accept the challenge that Surface represents: You're in the hardware business. Do better than this.

See also:

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Tablets, Windows

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  • Nice article.

    I happen to agree with you, sir. It is indeed probably to wake the OEMs.
    • Definitely agree with you

      The only OEM I have been impressed with lately is ASUS.
      • You forgot one

        Vizio. Its a new one but their devices look impressive.
      • @abiddine

        I agree. The new line of Vizio PCs looks amazing. ASUS too still makes killer hardware.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Haven't had a chance to look at Vizio in person yet

        They do look to have good stuff. Looking forward to checking it out in person.
      • Nobody I know with an ASUS

        has anything bad to say about them.
        I buy their motherboards as they never let me down in the past.
        They make good quality products.
        William Farrel
      • agree with asus

        My asus laptop is approaching 5 yrs old and still running nicely, and looks as good as a lot of the newer laptops on the market today. Definitely going to be looking at them for my Win 8 laptop
        Bruce Banter
      • Thriving...

        I've had a 10" Toshiba Thrive going on a year and love it. Its many unique features were largely ignored by the media for some reason. Is it still the only tablet with a swappable battery? People argue about the battery life of this tablet and that one, but here's one with virtually unlimited battery life.

        Then there's the full-sized HDMI and USB ports, the full-sized SD card slot. The Thrive is anything but a me-too tablet and priced under the pack, but it too bombed...

        My 7" tablet is an Archos. Is it still the only brand with a 250GB internal hard drive? Naysayers said the HD wouldn't last, but it's going on a year-and-a-half for me and I love it too. It is a great media machine.
    • I agree

      If the OEMs can't get it right, let MS show them what they think is the best possible way to showcase their new OS. Maybe the OEMs will take note, and produce even better hardware unburdened by their Crapware.
      • So true!

        I have an Asus that was some of the better Windows hardware I found at the time, but was preloaded with so much crap, I reformatted the drive so I could start from scratch; now it performs pretty well. My next computer, shortly after, was a MBP because I didn't have to deal with the crap, and I liked the hardware much better. A year later and I still prefer my Mac. It feels nicer, the display is better, it's still faster (with lower specs), the battery doesn't crap out in 30 minutes, and it's much, much lighter to carry around. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the new MS hardware though.
      • That would be great!

        [i]"Maybe the OEMs will take note, and produce even better hardware unburdened by their Crapware."[/i]

        So, with any luck they will run Linux instead, and introduce so much needed competition into the mix.
        shill shooter
    • That was my conclusion as well when I watched the live blog.

      Furthermore I think that EB has hit the nail squarely on the head when he says:

      "Can you point to any similarly impressive engineering feats in any current PC design from one of the leading OEMs?"

      and when he describes MS' challange to the OEMs as:

      "You???re in the hardware business. Do better than this."

      He is quite right with regard to Vista, some of the boxes sold were a scandal bordering on fraud perpetrated on the customer. "Vista Incapable/Unready". The fact that the experience with Win7 was very much better was first and foremost due to MS' efforts rather than anything positive the OEMs brought to the table, other than ensuring that the equipment they sold was not a direct scandal this time. In general (with a few notable exceptions) the equipment they release is the product of a downright lax and lazy attitude to their side of the job. Unless they wake up and smell the coffee Apple is going to continue to kill them and Microsoft is going to join in - that was the meaning of the memo that MS sent it's OEMs: "the right way or the highway, your choice."
      • Vista was Microsoft's fault!

        Do you argue, that those manufacturers put the "Vista Ready" or "Vista Capable" stickers on their own? They were told by Microsoft what are the requirements to claim these things.

        So they fulfilled the requirements, put the labels, manufactured the hardware... only to find out later, that Vista is not going to run on that hardware. What a surprise, Windows 7 runs just fine on the same "Vista Ready/Capable" hardware!!!

        It's easy to blame someone else, but it was Microsoft who goofed with Vista, not the OEMs.
        • Intel was a big factor

          At the time Vista shipped Intel didn't have any integrated graphics that genuinely provided the level of functionality expected by Vista, despite those requirements being quite modest from an aTI or Nvidia perspective. In the Vista version of the video driver Intel resorted to performing a lot of what shold be hardware operations in software. And so it was lousy.

          Intel only cared about supporting the corporate desktop market with its IGA and took far to long to realize the base requirements were due for a big boost. Intel has since gotten far more serious about video functionality but at the time of the Vista launch pressured Microsoft to give their IGA approval for Vista logo compliance. Microsoft would not have done this for any other company. And if they had it to do over again they wouldn't have done for Intel either.
      • @danbi: Yes.. And no...

        The Vista Ready/Capable stickers were partly Microsoft's fault and partly the fault of the OEMs... Why? Because they kept on stuffing the systems with all manner of crapware. I had a client about that time with a brand new Lenovo laptop - with Vista on it. It had no less than 40 icons running in the system tray at boot. And no.. I'm NOT kidding.. There were at least 40 icons in the system tray. No freakin' wonder it was running like molasses in January and you couldn't get anything done with it.

        There's also the matter of drivers.. Those are CLEARLY the fault of the OEMs. Seriously. I recall calling HP with regards to getting some Vista drivers for my HP Color Laserjet printer. This was during the beta era. The support guy said "What's Vista? Never heard of it." HUH? This guy's a tech...? There of course, were no Vista beta, nor RC drivers for my printer. In fact, it took HP 9 months from Vista's initial release to get a working set on their web site.

        Their excuse, btw... They did not feel they could keep up with the rapid changes in Windows Vista's driver model. I'm sorry... But by the time Vista hit the Beta stage, there were no drastic changes to the driver model. In fact, MOST of it was set in stone. Sure, there was some fine tuning of Vista and drivers between the Beta and when it went gold - but that's normal and nothing really drastic changed under the hood.

        Creative Labs also had a lot of blame going their way. Seems their high end sound cards used a bit of a hack in XP to make them work properly. Those hacks would not be allowed under Vista. They had to do some serious rewriting of their code - and not just from Kernal mode to User mode - to make them work properly in Vista and beyond.

        And before you say that wasn't the case - how is it Nvidia, ATI, Realtek and numerous other vendors were able to make drivers that were Vista compatible and keep up with the beta cycle..? Remember, without some sort of base drivers, any modern OS isn't going to do very much. And Microsoft can't be charged with writing each and every driver...

        Oh.. and since Windows 7 used the exact same driver model as Vista (wit a few VERY minor tweaks), there wasn't quite such a 3 ring circus when it came to drivers. If there wasn't a Win 7 driver ready during the beta - more often than not, the Vista driver would work fine.

        Ask someone who was there...
    • TechRadar review of Surface

      Lester Young
      • Was it good for you?

        I don't need to look at that article to know that it would be a glowing gush of adoration for the Surface, given that it was posted here by you.
        shill shooter
  • OK, but can Microsoft produce them at a realistic price point?

    Windows PC users are used to those commodity PC prices. So much so that OEMs feel compelled to include all that "performance-sapping crapware" in the hopes of squeezing a tiny bit more margin out of those cut-throat prices. No one is arguing that Microsoft hasn't designed an attractive and interesting device, but what makes us believe they posses the hardware design and production expertise to manufacture and ship Surfaces in significant numbers and at profitable prices?

    Ed, do you really think anyone at Microsoft is the kind of supply chain ninja Tim Cook is? If you're going to out-Apple Apple, you need Jon Ives design talent [b]and[/b] Tim Cook operational skills. If that was present in Redmond would Zune have happened? Would Kin?
    • @matthew_maurice

      MS seems to have gotten the design right. The question is, who is the Tim Cook-equivalent at MS? Apple offered Tim Cook 1 million shares of Apple stock over ten years. At current valuation that's at least $500 million. Is MS willing to fork out that kind of dough for an operations genius?
      • @Richard Flude

        Imagine if Apple had shown off the iPad 60 days before the final software (including keyboard drivers) were ready. Do you think the experience would have been the same.

        I suspect the new keyboard covers will work very well when the entire package, including software and drivers, is ready. I look forward to reviewing it.
        Ed Bott