by adam mathes
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Thoughts on Microsoft’s new tablet, Surface:

OEMs: Drop Dead

Creating and shipping Microsoft branded hardware for Windows 8 is a no-confidence vote by Microsoft of their OEM partners.

The low quality of the hardware running Windows much of the time has probably made Windows seem worse than it is to many consumers, and Microsoft probably thinks they can do better and lead by example. Judging by the enthusiasm they generated this week, they may be right.

But Still License Our Operating System

The tricky part is that Microsoft business empire is based on revenue from these OEM partners licensing their software to sell along with their hardware.

If Microsoft really plays to “win” with Surface, they would not “charge” themselves what they’d charge OEMs for the OS per device – cutting the price compared to a device made by an OEM that paid that licensing fee, or using the extra money on more expensive components.

This could create a better product at the expense of their relationships with OEMs.

But how much leverage do OEMs really have? What are they going to do, ship ChromeBooks instead? Linux? Android? The options just aren’t there right now.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to see more custom Android solutions or even a resurrection of some derivative of WebOS at some point as a hedge by the OEMs.

The Keyboard

Is it any good?

I’d like to try one. Will they be in Microsoft Stores?

Strategy vs. Humanity

Microsoft performs poorly when their business strategy and human factors reality collide. Human factors are the reality of our bodies and brains – you can’t expect them to change to accommodate your business strategy.

The “Windows Everywhere” strategy has been a failure for this reason.

“Windows Everywhere” means “Windows in places it is not appropriate.”

The traditional Windows interface doesn’t work on small screens. It doesn’t have appropriately large touch targets, and won’t work in a touch interface. Mouse operations can not be easily performed with a stylus. There are lots of places Windows (the traditional interface paradigm) doesn’t work.

Microsoft Word running on Windows CE device, the HP320lx, ~1995 – I used to own one of those (when I was in high school.) The hardware was pretty amazing at the time – and I loved the idea of being able to carry around a computer in my pocket. But the entire UI paradigm of forcing windows-like widgets to work on a device of that size, with a stylus, was just wrong.

The problem is Microsoft kept making this mistake for years.

Apple got it right by designing iOS for the devices and context. (Android got it wrong by designing an OS for a Blackberry-like device and requiring things like keyboards and job dials initially.)

Major non-PC Microsoft OS failures have suffered from this mismatch – Windows CE palmtops and later CE / Windows phones, the many iterations of failed Windows “stylus” tablets. These are subpar designs because they are part of the Windows strategy first, responsive to human needs second.

XBox and Windows Phone 7 (a Windows product in name only that does not actually use interface “windows” at all.) are the exceptions that prove the rule. These eschew the old design paradigms and work much better because the interface and system is actually designed reasonably.

We’ll see if the “hybrid” approach of Windows 8 addresses this or if it is a disaster.

Hybrid Flowers Don’t Always Bloom

Since I haven’t used the hardware (or Windows 8) yet, I am reserving judgment, but I think it’s interesting to see this hardware and Microsoft’s general change of tactics.

My instinct is that it is a very difficult design challenge for a single device to function well as a tablet and a laptop. It’s not just a question of better hardware designs – I think they just may be fundamentally different tools with different requirements for success.

When price-conscious consumers (i.e. non-Apple consumers) have to make a hard choice, I think they may choose a full laptop or netbook with a big screen and keyboard they can comfortably do “real” work on, and that a tablet is a “fun” and optional secondary device.

My prediction is the tablet market will continue to bifurcate between premium Apple iPads taking the bulk of profits but increasingly inexpensive (near zero margin) Amazon tablets becoming prevalent, and Microsoft and Android struggling in between.

But perhaps this is more of an enterprise play by Microsoft, and the devices will see more success there than in a consumer market.

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