My ZDNet blogging colleague Ed Bott has an interesting blog post which asks the question "Should Microsoft get into the PC hardware business?" I want to turn the question around and ask "What could Microsoft bring to the PC hardware business?"
First off, let's not kid ourselves as to the influence that Microsoft already has on hardware, through OEMs. Also, let's not forget Microsoft epic fail when it came to the "Windows Vista Capable" program which was supposed to make sure that PCs sold with XP would later be Vista capable. This was the program that was described by one Microsoft employee as follows:
"... based on the objective criteria that exist today for capable even a piece of junk will qualify."
So, the first thing that Microsoft should bring to the PC hardware business if it decides to enter that market is honesty. With the Vista Capable logo Microsoft put the interests of hardware vendors over that of the consumer, and the consumers ended up paying the price. That was a bad move. If what Microsoft has planned is more labels printed with hollow promises, I think we should all just say "no thanks" right now and let the OEMs carry on doing their stuff.
OK, let's put the Vista Capable debacle on one side and assume that Microsoft would approach any future hardware-related projects much more honestly and openly. What could Microsoft then bring to the PC hardware business?
I have to say that I agree with Ed that the idea that Microsoft would compete directly with its own hardware partners doesn't make much sense because the risks would outweigh the rewards (in particular the risks of alienating vendors, and the risks of legal hassles). But what about a "designed by Microsoft" PC based on Microsoft's own reference designs? Overall I can't see much point because hardware changes so rapidly and reference designs would quickly become outdated. However, a "designed by Microsoft" PC could be interesting during the first few months of a new OS as this is the most critical time for OEMs and the time that they need the most help to get things right. At the very least it might provide a baseline for OEMs to work from.
However, there are downsides to any "designed by Microsoft" PC program. The main drawback is that Microsoft would be encouraging OEMs to adopt a "one size fits all" set of PCs where internally the OEMs would be selling pretty much the same PC and purchasing decisions would be based on:
- What the PC looked like (what a sad criteria for choosing a PC that is)
- Bundled stuff
This "one size fits all" set of systems works for Apple and the Mac OS, but partly that's down to the fact that you can only get a Mac from Apple (I am, of course, temporarily forgetting about the Mac clones for a moment ...). Extend this idea across half a dozen of the big OEMs and pretty soon everything starts to taste like beans.
Better than get into the PC hardware game, I'd much rather see Microsoft get tough with the OEMs with regards to minimum performance standards for new PCs (how about that for a valid use for the Windows Experience Index). At the same time it would be a good idea to crack down on PCs loaded to the brim with crapware, something which doesn't win Microsoft any favors because when a new PC feels sluggish, people blame Windows rather than the crapware. This would do far more to improve the end user's Windows experience than licensing reference systems would.
How about a sticker telling the user what Windows Experience Index score the system received? Or a "crapware free" sticker?