Microsoft’s Uncharted Territory

by Ben Bajarin   |   October 18th, 2013

As I study the industry, the market trends, and the solutions trying to flow with the trends, I’m fascinated by what Microsoft is doing strategically. From a historical standpoint, we have to conclude that the Microsoft of old is drastically different from the Microsoft of new. The recipe that got Microsoft to where their once dominant stance in the market has been is not the recipe that will again make them relevant. 1

We are seeing this shift in action as Microsoft gets more active in the hardware space with products like Surface and their acquisition of Nokia. We are watching Microsoft abandon nearly all the strategies that made them successful and embracing new ones in the hope of a future. A quick survey of the hardware landscape brings this to light.

Hardware Walled Gardens

What we are seeing is the emergence of hardware walled gardens. Take Surface for example. The Surface–and even more so with Surface 2– was designed with an experience that is based on proprietary hardware accessories. Many of the new accessories and keyboards work only with the proprietary port designed into the Surface’s hardware.

What is interesting about this is that it is somewhat counter to how the industry rallied around Windows to begin with. Microsoft’s success up to this point was built up around the idea of compatible hardware and accessories around the Microsoft ecosystem. A customer knew that if they purchased a desktop or notebook from a Windows vendor that many, if not all of their ports, were compatible with third party accessories. We may be moving away from this model. The only exception was in docking stations. Third party vendors often made their connectors to the laptop proprietary but all other ports were based on industry standards.

A quick glance at nearly every other hardware partner of Microsoft’s and we see the same picture emerging. Nearly all of them are building hardware specifically tied to proprietary ports using proprietary accessories for a specific value proposition. So what has changed that is causing this shift? The answer is differentiation.

During the era of compatible hardware there was nowhere near the need to differentiate as there is today in the broad consumer landscape. When most PC users were being supplied with computers from their employer, it was their employer who made the buying decision and did so in bulk largely based on price. Once a pure consumer market emerged–somewhere in the mid 2000s–we saw a more clear demand from consumers to differentiate and hardware companies were forced to think of new differentiation strategies in order to compete.

This is in essence the challenge of a hardware company who ships the same software as their competitors. Hardware becomes the only real differentiation point and maintaining more loyal hardware customers becomes even more challenging. ??So enters the era of hardware walled gardens. Companies like Microsoft, Dell, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, HP, etc., hope to generate more hardware loyal customers by locking them into a proprietary hardware ecosystem. This is out of necessity because they simply can’t do so with a proprietary software ecosystem like Apple can.

Glimmers of Hope

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. I simply believe that it is different from what we have seen historically from Microsoft and its partners.

This trend certainly lines up with the BYOD stance of many corporations today. Consumers may choose the best hardware ecosystem to meet their needs at both home and work. But based on the understanding of differentiation I outlined above, it is fascinating to think that PC companies may be evolving into accessory companies. What I mean by that is that their “box” strategy is really more a means of an end to their accessory strategy where the real money may be.

Now, if we use this line of thinking then the Surface makes perfect sense. While Microsoft has never had a true PC hardware business they have had an accessories business for quite some time. So perhaps the Surface is more an accessories strategy than a box strategy. Whether it is or not, Microsoft’s partners will follow suit.2

We are at the very beginning of this shift. I’ve continued to think that hardware companies will be continually challenged if all they are is hardware companies using off the shelf operating systems. However, by adding a proprietary hardware walled garden angle into the mix things can get even more interesting and actually be a profitable part of their business. Perhaps hardware companies who think about their hardware walled garden may not only continue to differentiate but also may be able to layer web or tie software services onto that differentiation.

We are very early in this hardware walled garden trend and the next 12 months will be very interesting to watch how this new approach to differentiation of Microsoft and their partner ecosystems develop.

  1. Note I didn’t say dominant, as I have a hard time making the case that any company will truly dominate the market the way Microsoft once did. []
  2. Of course, it will be also interesting to see how Microsoft navigates the hardware waters at large. I’ve been of the idea they should license technology like Surface’s connectors, etc., to partners. However, Microsoft seems committed to some degree of hardware. []

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Glaurung-Quena

    Well that sounds like it’s doomed to failure – people have become used to the idea that they can re-use their mice, keyboards, printers, scanners, etc from one computer to another, and the minute they realize they can’t, they’re going to stay away from that proprietary vendor forever afterwards.

    Maybe your claim would make more sense to me if you could give some examples of what proprietary accessories other vendors are experimenting with, other than the surface (which doesn’t make a very good example considering that absolutely no one is buying them).

    • Bill Smith

      Hey! I actually saw a Surface (ONE) in the wild the other day, being used at an outdoor cafe. Mind you, I’m in Silicon Valley, so it may have been a Microsoft employee, but having seen ONE is a big improvement over only seeing them at the Microsoft store.

      For a laugh, go to one of the Bay Area malls (e.g. Valley Fair) that has a Microsoft and an Apple store within 50 yards of each other…Microsoft store…employees playing games and possibly a customer or two…Apple Store…packed to the rafters with a steady stream of people moving in/out.

    • benbajarin

      Ah, yes. Dell is the best secondary example of this with their new venue pro lineup of 2-1 PCs. I am confident, however, that you will see more vendors come out with this proprietary port / accessory strategy in particular with the 2-1 device segment Intel and MSFT are pushing so intensely.

      • klahanas

        All your statements here, and in the article ring true. Conspicuous by it’s absence, however, is that the trailblazer for this ultra-proprietary behavior is none other than Apple.

  • 20,000

    Microsoft has essentially no future in the consumer space.

  • Mauryan

    This is going to be a race to the bottom. With the walled gardens, it would become harder and harder to pull customers away from one eco-system into another unless the one currently in use is terrible. Microsoft might be digging its own grave in the bargain because some companies can decide to shift into a new eco-system that offers a better user experience for a more competitive price. With every big company coming up with its own walled eco-system, price will be a major factor. That is what happened to the laptop market where margins ended up hair thin. The company that churns out revolutionary products periodically, while maintaining user experience intact and customer loyalty, will begin to dominate again. I can think of only one or two companies who can do that in the long run. I do not see Microsoft having that kind of a business enterprise and ingenuity to be one of them. It would be more prudent for them to split into smaller companies, each more focused on different product lines in order to survive. And Microsoft does not have a good reputation of being a reliable company for customer satisfaction. They are going to erode away their own base slowly because the old Microsoft is still buried underneath the new mask they are trying to wear. This looks like a strategy to buy time so that they can go back to sitting on their rear ends making just money.