Dear PC Makers: It’s Our Turn, Now

Microsoft’s Surface indicts an industry unable to match the iPad | “Outside of my wife, the Touch Cover is No. 2”

Ashlee Vance

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES

On June 18, Microsoft beckoned 200 or so members of the media to a grimy, industrial part of Hollywood for what it described as a can’t-miss affair. Dutiful reporters gathered at 3:30 p.m. outside a film and art studio Microsoft had rented for the day. While beads of sweat formed on the foreheads of the people waiting to get in, aspiring actresses walked by in tight jeans and high heels on their way to a T-Mobile commercial casting call next door.

Microsoft usually begs for attention. On this day it played the cool maestro. The company went full Apple, teasing and concealing and generally making attendees believe something really fantastic would happen. And it worked: Something that did seem rather fantastic arrived at about 4:20 p.m. It was the Surface tablet, whose software and hardware were both made by Microsoft. In that moment, Microsoft became not just a competitor to Apple but also a rival to such longtime PC manufacturing partners as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Acer.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive officer, tried his best to soften the blow to the company’s partners. When he arrived in 1980, he said, Microsoft’s best-selling product was the SoftCard, a device that plugged into Apple computers so they could run extra software. “Let’s take a little bit of a look back at the role of hardware at Micro-soft,” Ballmer said, as a marketing video spun up to show mice, keyboards, and, of course, the Xbox.

To be clear: Making hardware is not a natural course of action for Microsoft. It’s what the company does only in times of desperation. With the release of Windows 8 looming, Microsoft is in dire need of a hardware company that can make up ground against Apple’s runaway lead in tablets. The Surface represents an indictment of the entire PC and device industry, which has spent more than two years trying to match the iPad with a parade of hapless copycats.

Rather than complaining, PC makers ought to take note of the tablets Microsoft showed off in L.A. The first Surface, which should arrive around October, is a 9-mm-thick 1.5 pounder that will run on low-power ARM chips. It’s black, with beautiful beveled edges, a built-in kickstand, and a shell made of a lightweight, strong material called vapor-deposited magnesium. (Brushed aluminum is so last year, Apple.) The device also comes with a cover that locks firmly in place — unlike Apple’s easily detached iPad protector — and functions as a proper keyboard. Both the kickstand and cover-cum-keyboard seem like obvious ideas in hindsight, yet the great army of PC makers failed to think up anything nearly as clever over the past two years.

Microsoft is also building a second, slightly bigger Surface, due sometime after October, that will run on a more powerful Intel chip. It will come with a stylus and an even sturdier keyboard-cover. Workers will be able to run all their Windows 8 software and earlier Windows applications on this device, while the thinner one will support a more limited set of software, since it uses a chip architecture more common to smartphones than PCs.

At the launch, Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows division, did much of the oohing and ahhing over the Surfaces. Perhaps sensing the importance of the moment, at times Sinofsky’s voice shook and his hands trembled to the point that he couldn’t finish demonstrating the tablets’ functions. Still, he managed to show off enough of the product and its industrial design to generate a few screams of ecstasy from the audience. (Whether these came from overjoyed Microsoft employees or rapturous press was not clear.) Neither he nor any of the other execs talked much about pricing, other than to say it would be “comparable” to other tablets.

It was Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft’s Surface products, who really did the Steve Jobs impression. He went on and on about the engineering marvels — including 200 custom parts — that make the Surface. When the kickstand goes up, for instance, it makes a sound like a luxury car door closing, he said. Panay talked at length about how Surfaces feel and look like books. (To this journalist, they looked more like exceptionally sleek computing devices, but OK.) “We designed this organically,” he said. “It is light enough and it feels just perfect.” How perfect? “I am seriously in love with it,” Panos said of the keyboard-cover. “Outside of my wife, the Touch Cover is No. 2. I never want to take the Touch Cover off.”

In many ways Microsoft helped create the mess that Panos et al. are trying to fix. Along with Intel, it sucked all the profits out of the PC industry, leaving HP and Dell to rely on manufacturing companies in Taiwan for their innovations. The result has been the Great Stagnation, during which PC makers have been throwing dozens of smartphone and tablet designs up against the wall, with basically all of them sliding to the floor in an easily ignorable pile. At some point Microsoft realized that it needed a hit product for the Windows 8 debut this fall, and it had to build the hit itself.

Which is not to say that Microsoft is committed to making hardware for the long haul. It unveiled Surface months before the arrival of Windows 8 and says it will deliver these products only through Microsoft’s own online and retail stores. This does not sound like a full-on break with the PC makers. Rather, it sounds like an exhortation: If you work hard enough, PC makers, you too can make something different and sexy. “We took the time and effort to get Surface and Windows 8 right,” Ballmer said. Now it’s the rest of the industry’s turn. That is, if they still want to have an industry in a few years.

The bottom line The Surface may be more a way to goad PC manufacturers than a sign of Microsoft’s long-term commitment to making hardware.

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