Microsoft Surface range threatens Apple like no other tablets

Don’t underestimate the importance of Microsoft’s decision to make its own hardware.

For the past thirty years Microsoft has dominated software like no other company. Part of its success was down to working with partners like HP, Dell and Toshiba.

Microsoft’s hardware partners often followed the software giant blindly into battle. They probably see Microsoft’s move into hardware as betrayal. HP says as much out loud. Relations between these companies will never be the same.

Yet the way Microsoft reads the technology business means it has little choice but to damage those long-term relationships.

It needed to make its own hardware for two reasons. First, Microsoft saw that Apple was in danger of eating its lunch. The iPad presented the PC with its first real challenge in 30 years. Making a competitive tablet was Microsoft’s only logical response.

The old Microsoft would have developed a tablet operating system then left partners like HP and Toshiba to build the hardware. I’ve seen tablets from both companies and while they are not without their charms, they are not up to Apple’s standards. And, frankly, they are not as good as Microsoft’s Surfaces.

Microsoft had to get this right. It couldn’t leave the future of technology to its partners, each of whom is struggling with its own long-term strategic problems.

Surface is not Microsoft’s first foray into tablets. There were slate-style pen computers from Microsoft in the early 1990s. Later in that decade there were devices which switched from laptop to slate format.

They were awkward, slow, hard to use devices with mainly rubbish software and unwieldy apps. One bright spot from this era was the wonderful OneNote app.

By the time Apple reinvented the slate format – as the iPad – Microsoft had effectively given up on the pen project.

Say what you like about Microsoft, the company is not stupid. It almost immediately recognised the iPad as threat to its existence, as a way of bypassing its ownership of the link between individual workers and corporate systems. When it moved to address this threat, it simply could not afford to let the project wallow in the mire that dealing with partners can be.

So why do I say Surface threatens Apple like no other tablets? Mainly because Microsoft has taken the tablet format and reinvented it in its own image.

Surface represents a stepping stone between a pure tablet like the iPad and thin, mobile PCs like Ultrabooks. Sure, that may be a backward step in some respects, but Microsoft knows its corporate customers well.

Surface was not designed to appeal to end users – although many swear by the device and I recently found it a more attractive proposition than I expected. The product is ideal for businesses where mobile devices need to fit into existing infrastructure – much of it supplied by Microsoft. It ticks a lot of boxes that have long worried CIOs and other senior managers. It’s a relatively secure device, there’s a low total cost of ownership and there’s less scope for users to trick them out with troublesome, hard-to-support applications although they give users the freedom to easily install Microsoft sanctioned apps.