What OEMs desperately need to learn from Microsoft's Surface

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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