Microsoft’s Surface PCs are yet to hit the market so it may sound odd for me to propose what I am about to propose. However, the potential impact of a Microsoft branded tablet for their partners is significant if Microsoft is actually choosing to compete with them. I tend to believe Microsoft may be challenging them and in the process creating some useful and innovative solutions designed to help their partners not compete with them.
Surface PC is being positioned as a new family of computers. There is some truth to that and there isn’t at the same time. This is a class of computer some call convertibles but we refer to them as Hybrids. We have written many articles about this form factor and why we think it is interesting. The key takeaway is that to truly engage in productivity tasks a keyboard is a necessary accessory and we already see demand in professionals and many consumers to use a keyboard with their iPad.
The demand is there and Microsoft believes Windows 8 is uniquely positioned to meet the needs of the customer who wants true tablet and true notebook functionality in the same device–and they may be right. I say that because if there is a sweet spot in the market for a product like Surface, Microsoft is the only one merging touch and mouse / keyboard computing to a single OS. Microsoft may not have been the first to create a product like this but they may be the first ones who make it work.
With all of this context I believe the smartest thing Microsoft can do is license the Surface Brand and many of their hardware innovations like the Touch Cover, Type Cover, Vapor MG, Digital Ink, etc., to any hardware partners who wants to make a Windows 8 Tablet.
In this scenario Surface could be to Microsoft what UltraBooks are to Intel. Microsoft can influence the specifics of the hardware and provide them with the tools to create Surface PCs. Microsoft could still sell keyboard accessories or perhaps others they come up as well, which is a model they are already successful with.
This path would also allow Microsoft to build the Surface brand and keep all Windows 8 tablets under the same brand. This is a good positioning strategy so consumers are not confused when they see an OEM tablet which is not a surface computer but is similar. Given the youthfulness of the tablet category, and the challenge of a horizontal platform while a market is maturing, the less confusion in the market the better. Given what I have seen so far the best path forward is for every Windows 8 tablet to be a Surface PC whether it has the Microsoft brand on it or not. Lastly, this move would not put Microsoft in a position to compete with their partners but rather spur interest in a category that is beneficial to the Windows ecosystem. They can then let their hardware partners take it from there and come up with differentiators that fit the surface computing paradigm.
This direction would require Microsoft to work much closer with their hardware partners going forward. Something I believe Microsoft should have been doing all along and yet they have not. This has led to quite a bit of frustration with some partners to which I have first hand knowledge of.
From what I have seen so far there are enough interesting features to generate interest in Surface PCs. The bottom line is many professionals and some consumers are looking to unite a keyboard with a tablet. For those a Surface PC may be a viable option. However, we believe that even though the hardware is compelling, it will not change the fact that for Microsoft to be successful customers have to want more than the hardware, they have to want Windows 8.
The challenge staring Microsoft in the face is convincing customers Windows 8 is a software platform worth their time, energy, and overall commitment.
The bottom line is I am excited by what I saw. More importantly I am impressed that Microsoft did something bold and took a risk. Whether it works or not, this is the kind of thing they needed to do to stay relevant in the new era of personal computing.