The History of Microsoft Hardware (or Something like It)

So this is a post that I’ve written in some form or another since I first started keeping track of technology.

It began with the Zune but spread to things like the Xbox and the Courier and Microsoft research. My journey into the heart of darkness that is Microsoft was from the consumer side and often times its where I return because the consumer side is often overlooked or derided. But it is also the one facet of the software giant that has become more important as time has gone on.

But this isn’t about me, this is about why Microsoft is entering hardware and it can be summed up in one word; Necessity.

I think some look at the recent shifts in the PC market; the slowdown and PC makers making non-Windows devices; as the just desserts after years of EVIL.

For me the reason we have reached this point has been a convergence of events and factors that have as much to do with the PC OEMs as it has with Redmond’s past behavior.

It’s easy to look at declining PC sales along with increase OEM interest in anything but Microsoft and blame Microsoft. They got taken to court on being a Monopoly. Windows 8 didn’t stem the sales decline. They didn’t move fast enough to counter Apple. In all honesty I think the OEMs diversifying their products is ultimately a good thing for them and for users. But OEMs aren’t blameless.

I could cite the lack of a coherent product strategy, lackluster hardware, or crapware but that would take too long and I honestly want to cut these posts down into manageable chunks. (Which won’t mean this isn’t a Long read)

To be blunt, Microsoft needs good devices that sell their software, and while the partner model they have built has pushed the platform forward it has also made the PC (and thus Windows) a commodity. Having to rely on a third party to make hardware works….unless the market has shifted to devices that closely joined hardware to software.

Imagine being a software vendor that wanted to push a new form factor. You get the world’s biggest chipmaker to partner with you, and then you lineup a series of hardware vendors. Now one of the criterion for this new category is that the devices be cheap. So you do the intro campaign and announce this new category. You pull out the first device and its priced out of the target customers wallet. This was the Ultra Mobile PC. This story will be repeated when it comes to MP3s (Plays for Sure) and even Media (Media Center/Home Server).

This tension between software and hardware and who controls the end result has always been at heart of Microsoft’s partner model. In the partner model Microsoft gets hardware without the cost of building it; it also means not being able to control the user experience. The model doesn’t prevent OEMs from adding on additional operating systems or even doing non-Windows devices. It works better when talking about workstations than with Ultrabooks. People have treated the Partner model as this sacrosanct pact that could never be broken, but it can it is.

When the iPad hit back in 2008-09 it brought to a head a lot things. The shift to mobile computing made OEMS move to embrace the then young Android platform. It also lead to one of the first times hardware makers left Windows behind. The first Asus tablet was to be Windows Embedded until Android Honeycomb was announced.

Mobile has changed Microsoft. It has pushed the company to become a bigger cross-platform player with its services. It has also made it rethink Windows. And I think it has also made them rethink hardware. People often talk about the Nokia deal (when Nokia went exclusively Windows Phone) as some short of short-sighted action. It was out of necessity, just as buying Nokia’s hardware division was.

Hardware is an endpoint. It is important because it is a gateway. For Microsoft the present is a PC market that is slowing down and OEM partners looking across the fence. This is why Microsoft is doing hardware.

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