Is This Why Microsoft Wants to Do Its Own Hardware?

Is This Why Microsoft Wants to Do Its Own Hardware?

When you want something done right, sometimes you gotta do it yourself.

That's the message Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) is sending to the world with its direct entry into first-party tablet hardware in its freshly unveiled Surface tablet. Directly implied from that message is a subtext that current hardware partners weren't pushing the envelope far enough with the physical bodies that house Mr. Softy's creations, particularly in the escalating competition with Apple (NAS: AAPL) and its wildly successful integrated approach to computing.

I'll take it. All of it.
TheNew York Times describes the sense of panic that some Microsoft execs felt when Apple unveiled the original iPad in 2010, and they took note of the lengths that Cupertino went to in an effort to procure materials and otherwise lock down its supply chain in characteristic fashion.

Apple bought up massive amounts of high-quality aluminum from a mine in Australia for use in the tablet's construction, and it made Microsoft keenly aware that its own hardware OEMs simply weren't able or willing to devote as much into the build quality of its devices.

After all, one of the weaknesses of the open approach is that hardware OEMs are incentivized to cut corners wherever possible for the sake of margins and by definition are primarily concerned with the initial sale. The net result of that paradox is that hardware quality devolves over time as rivals cut costs to compete, and the consumer is the one who suffers for it.

In the days of the desktop PC, this approach led to low-cost offerings and the proliferation of Windows, and low hardware quality is less of a concern for a computer tower that sits beside your feet. With the meteoric rise of smartphones and tablets as more personal mobile devices, users can literally feel the difference in their hands every single time they pick up a piece of clunky hardware, so hardware build quality is much more important now than it has ever been.

The blame game
The clunky hardware of one partner in particular, Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) , may have been a contributing factor for Microsoft's decision to jump into hardware, even as HP will bet big on Windows 8 tablets later this year.

Microsoft and HP preempted the iPad by unveiling a slew of "slate PCs" running Windows 7 in January 2010 at the Consumer Electronics Show. One of these devices was what would become HP's Slate 500. The Times also details how this device showed some promise during the initial collaboration stages, but development quickly devolved into finger-pointing.

HP Slate 500. Source: HP.

HP Slate 500. Source: HP.

A former Microsoft exec said HP's manufacturing department "completely ruined" the device as it began picking what key ingredients would power the device. The Slate 500 ran on an Intel (NAS: INTC) Atom processor, frequently found in netbooks at the time.

The specific chip inside was built using the earlier Bonnell microarchitecture and 45-nanometer manufacturing process. This was before all the improvements in power efficiency that Intel has made with its Atom family more recently with its 32-nanometer Medfield Atom offerings, so the result was that the Slate 500 ran incredibly hot and had poor battery life.

The touchscreen wasn't very responsive, since the software and hardware weren't integrated together very well, leading an ex-HP exec to compare it to driving a car without a functioning steering wheel. HP complained that the operating system wasn't optimized for touch input, while Microsoft thought HP's hardware was less than impressive.

Within a matter of weeks, the iPad was unveiled, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Actions speak louder than words
The software giant tried to tap others in its wide stable of hardware OEMs to take on the iPad directly, but it continued to butt heads over pricing strategy and designs. Windows head Steven Sinofsky, who spearheaded the Surface unveiling, lost faith in hardware partners, according to the report.

Naturally, Microsoft's official statement, loaded to the brim with your usual fare of PR fluff, was that it "has tremendous respect for our hardware partners and the innovation they bring to the Windows ecosystem."

Although if they were doing such a good job, why would Microsoft need to intervene?

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