Microsoft Surface Reveals the Cost of HP’s webOS Folly

HP's TouchPadWith Microsoft’s planned launch of the Surface tablet, the full cost of Hewlett-Packard’s grotestque mishandling of the purchase and abandonment of Palm’s webOS has become clear.  HP’s Personal Systems Group now finds itself in the worst of all possible worlds, facing competition from its most important supplier in what should be its hottest market.

HP’s purchase of Palm in early 2010 was a strategic move by PSG chief Todd Bradley and then CEO Mark Hurd both to move HP into the increasingly important smartphone market and to win a measure of independence from Microsoft. The key was webOS, a rough-edged but highly promising operating system.

HP’s plans for webOS were ambitious. A tablet, the TouchPad, was added to Palm’s planned lineup of new phones and a version of webOS was being developed to run on top of Windows to create an HP webOS ecosystem across a wide variety of devices.

Alas, the whole project was caught up in HP’s boardroom melodrama. Mark Hurd was replaced by Léo Apoteker, who had little love for PSG in general or webOS in particular. The TouchPad was rushed to market before it was ready and sold poorly. Barely two months after the TouchPad’s launch, Apoteker killed the entire webOS effort, leaving HP with nothing but a huge writedown for development costs and inventory.

Although the replacement of Apoteker by Meg Whitman spared PSG from possible spin-out or sale, it hasn’t solved its fundamental problem. It’s the dominant player in a PC business that is barely profitable and seems doomed to continue its slow shrinkage. It’s not a player in smartphones and by the time it enters the tablet market, if indeed it still plans to, it will be competing directly with Microsoft-branded products.

It is becoming painfully clear that the future of personal computing belongs to those who control integrated platforms: Apple, Microsoft, and maybe Google. It’s impossible to say where the webOS vision would have taken HP had it been given the investment and time it needed for success. But it is all too clear where its failure has left the company.

HP is a stool with three rickety legs. Personal computers produce neither growth nor a lot of profit. The cash cow of imaging and printing also faces a long, slow decline. And the enterprise business—servers, software, and services—is heavily dependent on partners such as Intel, Microsoft, and, on a good day, Oracle.

The cost of the webOS misadventure was far less than the $10.3 billion HP for analytics software maker Autonomy, an Apoteker acquisition on which the jury is still out. But the price of the failure may end up being far higher: The loss of HP’s ability to shape its own destiny.


Surface Changes the Microsoft, OEM Dynamic Forever


Yesterday, Microsoft announced Surface, a Microsoft-branded line of Windows tablets and convertibles. While details on battery life, pricing and availability were not available, Surface looks very impressive at first glance. The most unique feature is the thin keyboard case that converts the device into an extremely portable notebook. By competing with their own PC customers, Microsoft has changed the customer dynamic forever and will cause ripples all the way down the value chain.

Microsoft has a mixed history of making their own hardware products. On the plus side, we have the XBOX, mice and keyboards. XBOX is the dominant gaming and entertainment living room platform with one of the most innovative input devices, the gamer with Kinect. Microsoft has also had some big failures, too. The Kin phone was on the market a few months and the Zune was just recently discontinued. Both the Kin and Zune were nicely designed hardware, but both had certain fatal flaws, too. Kin consumer pricing blew it out of any reasonable price range for its target market. Zune forced users into a content acquisition model consumers just weren’t ready for and also faced intense competition from Apple’s iPod. While Surface details like pricing and availability were not available, assuming enough high-quality Windows Metro apps are available, the tablet looks very compelling… and that’s a problem for OEMs.

Since the days of DOS, Microsoft has never crossed the line and competed with its own PC customers in PCs, the HPs, Dells, Toshibas, and Lenovos of the world. When Microsoft got into Xbox, their customers did not want to get into that market. The only major friction point was discussion around Microsoft under-investing and deprioritizing PC gaming in lieu of Xbox game investments. When Microsoft launched Zune, PC OEMS did participate in the PMP market, but the Zune took the premium spot and left some differentiation room for its OEMs.

Before Surface, many OEMs I research were planning to launch Windows 8 and RT tablets. Some would be out for the October Windows launch, others would be out in Q1. Some tablets would be focused on the consumer market, others commercial and designs were in final prototype stages. Those designs could be in serious jeopardy now, but key details do not exist on Surface that would give better indication of an OEMs response. These are details like pricing, bundled software and services, target markets and distribution. Given Microsoft did not share details, one must now play out scenarios and do what-if games.

Microsoft could price Surface $100 above their OEMs. This would be a halo product strategy where Surface was the best of the best and aspirational, but wouldn’t sell that many. That is, unless it came pre-bundled with key services up front. This could be dangerous given consumer reaction to Zune’s all you can eat music plan. It would though “prime the pumps” like Ballmer indicated, paving the way for other OEMs to slot in. Microsoft could also narrow the target market, like going consumer only and not adding tools and features that would make it desirable to IT. This is an unlikely scenario given the Windows 8 and RT enterprise feature set and the popularization of BYOD. Surface will be in the enterprise on its own or get dragged in there by CIOs given the Microsoft brand and backing.

All the above scenarios are muddy and net-net only enable OEMs to participate in a low price leader position. This is similar to what the Android tablet manufacturers are experiencing today, which is ugly at best. A few companies are rising to the surface like Asus and Samsung, but still no one I talk to likes this market as no one is making any money in it and return rates and low levels of satisfaction run rampant. This is why OEMs were so excited by Windows 8. They saw how Android and in HPs case webOS turned out for them and came back to Microsoft.

With Surface, the dynamic between Microsoft and its customers changes…. forever. The announcement yesterday may be known as the day Microsoft delivered the iPad’s first real competition, but may also be known as the day Microsoft crossed the line with OEMs. Microsoft now is competing directly with its customers. Some OEMs will contemplate exiting the PC business entirely or exit the consumer market. Others will re-engage with Android. Some will run after Tizen, webOS or even plan to double down on their own OS like Samsung’s bada. Regardless, the PC market as we know it will be different from here on out. In some ways, that is a good thing, but long term could be a very dangerous game for Microsoft if the conclusion is that they have less customers for Windows.

Microsoft Should License Surface Technology and Brand to Partners

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.