Another day, another Windows partner cried to the media, threatened Microsoft, and warned that a component of Microsoft’s new strategy could backfire. Is the pattern becoming all too familiar?
While the PR volleys by Valve, Acer make tech watching somewhat fun, the truth of the matter is that the Windows-based PC / traditional computing ecosystem will go into existential crisis mode very soon (if it isn’t in one already!). The best way to illustrate the crisis is to briefly look at trends of the PC industry, competing alternatives, and consumers of computing devices:
- PC growth is slowing
- Windows PC OEMs cannot help themselves but compete on a cost basis
- Competing alternatives of desktop and laptop PCs (e.g., smartphones, tablets, and e-readers) are looking more and more like competent substitutes for many consumers’ daily computing needs
- Those alternatives’ sales are growing leaps and bounds
- Consumers are beginning to care a lot more about features and benefits (e.g., ultraportability, great design, long battery life, easy access to a digital ecosystem of content and apps) that Windows 7 (along with previous editions of Windows) and PC OEMs traditionally do not offer (or at least, the value propositions are quite weak)
Now all of those issues could and would be addressed to some extent with the arrival of Windows 8, but the sad truth is that there is simply no guarantee that the business models built around Wintel (Windows+Intel) would survive in the era of smartphones and tablets. And perhaps with the realization that the current PC business models could completely fall apart in a not-to-distance future, major PC manufacturers such as Dell and HP are trying to get ahead of the curve and actively pursuing diversification. Not surprisingly, as Acer complains about Microsoft’s Surface strategy, it is marketing its Android tablets to the masses.
The buzz that Microsoft got from media for its unveiling of the Surface tablets is not only the result of careful, smart PR. A large part, I would argue, is the message of Microsoft acknowledging that the computing industry has changed enough that the new Windows must come with an all-hands-on-deck hardware strategy. While OEMs could make Android or Linux computing devices if Windows 8 (and subsequent editions) computing devices were to fade in the marketplace, Microsoft simply cannot make that swtich. It simply cannot let Windows 8 fail as there are no alternative path to success. (No, patent licensing is not an effective subsitution of Windows licensing.)
No one truly knows whether Windows 8 will succeed in the marketplace or not, but Microsoft’s intent is pretty clear from day one: Windows 8 is trying to become the OS that works in more scenarios than all other OSes in the market. For example, the fact that Windows 8 seems to work well (enough) for different computing inputs should enable a ton of innovation from usage and application perspectives. The Surface tablets are the initial embodiment of that vision. (For those who think that Tim Cook is totally right about his refrigerator-toasters analogy, they have
probably not observed the habits of many information/knowledge workers today with their beloved iPads and Logitech keyboard cases. Honestly, these iPad+keyboard owners seem quite happy to switch from one input to another to get their work done.)
Because the distribution of Surface tablets will be limited to Microsoft stores (at least at first), there is actually plenty of room for Windows 8 hero devices to show up in different distribution channels. If there is an OEM who dares to step up to the plate and give their Windows 8 computing devices a Surface-like treatment, that OEM could be positioned for massive successes down the road (something like a safer version of Nokia’s Windows Phone strategy).
In the end, one thing is for sure: More whining won’t solve the existential crisis…