One of the worst-kept secrets in Microsoft's investment history is no longer a "secret." On February 5, Microsoft made a $2 billion loan to one of its largest PC OEMs, Dell, as part of Dell's move to go private.
Microsoft does not own part of Dell as part of this transaction. However, the situation reminds me of another major Microsoft "investment": The billions it paid to Nokia almost exactly two years ago to help rescue a company teetering on the edge of a "burning platform."
At the time of the February 2011 Nokia deal, Microsoft wanted and needed at least one of its partners to be "all in" with the Windows Phone platform, to the exclusion of competing operating systems like Android. With the money it is loaning Dell, Microsoft also may be seeking a way to keep the third largest PC maker from straying into the Linux/ChromeOS/Android camps, as my ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan and others have speculated.
There's another interesting parallel between the Nokia and Dell situations. When Microsoft backed Nokia, there was a lot of chatter about whether that move would result in an unfair Nokia advantage. There are similar worries around what Microsoft's Dell investment could mean for other PC makers and their customers.
Nokia "will contribute its expertise on hardware design, language support, and help bring Windows Phone to a larger range of price points, market segments and geographies," the original announcement trumpeted. What about the other Windows Phone partners -- HTC, Samsung, even Dell (which delivered the Venue Pro Windows Phone and no follow ups)? Weren't they now second-class citizens in the Windows Phone ecosystem?
Microsoft came out of the gate really pushing Nokia's Lumia as the flagship Windows Phone a year-plus ago. But since then, the Softies have backed off a bit and shared the love.
While Microsoft still gives Nokia props and is counting on Nokia for turn-by-turn navigation and Maps technologies for all Windows Phones, Nokia isn't the only Windows Phone game in town. I see more and more Microsoft managers sporting the HTC 8X Windows Phone 8s, rather than the latest Lumias. (Microsoft identifies HTC as a "signature" Windows Phone partner, but all this really means, I've heard, is HTC agreed to use "Windows Phone" in the official name of its phones, which is something Nokia didn't do.)
When Microsoft chose a phone partner for its just-announced 4 Afrika African-development initiative, it went with Huawei, not Nokia, in spite of Nokia's long history and expertise in selling phones in the developing world. Microsoft and Huawei jointly unveiled the new variant of the Huawei Windows Phone 8 Ascend W1 on February 4.
So it could be that a Microsoft tie-up with Dell won't necessarily be to the detriment of Microsoft's other OEMs. Rather than becoming nothing but a factory for new Microsoft Surface PCs and tablets -- something that some Microsoft watchers believed/feared to be the primary reason Microsoft would invest in Dell -- maybe a Microsoft-backed Dell just becomes a stronger Windows OEM.
It's a tumultous time to be a Microsoft OEM, no doubt about it. The PC market is in decline, revenue-wise. Microsoft is competing with its own OEMs with its Surface line of products. And now Microsoft is providing $2 billion loan to one of its largest OEMs, Dell. I wonder how many Windows OEMs will still be in existence in a year or two, and how many will be backing Windows as just one of several different platforms to hedge their bets.