Microsoft's Surface Could Kill HP, Dell, Other PC OEMs

Microsoft's Surface isn't just an attempt to take on the iPad or an articulation of MS's independent design philosophy -- it's a fundamental threat against the OEMs who've spent decades as Microsoft's partners and collectively destroyed the industry's perception of the PC as a high-value product.

The adversarial roots run deep. Microsoft didn't tell its partners about Surface until three days before the event and gave only the most minimal details on the product. Only the largest vendors even got a phone call; Asus and Acer, the 4th and 5th largest PC manufacturers worldwide, have stated that they had no idea anything was coming.

For OEMs who have spent decades working in lock-step with Redmond, that's deeply unsettling. The "Vista Capable" lawsuit from several years back shed intimate light on this process; emails released to the public show Microsoft meeting with HP to set chipset requirements and discussing its plans with OEMs more than a year before the OS even shipped.

Sources close to Microsoft have told us that the software giant built Surface because it was unhappy with the way its traditional partners weren't innovating around its next-generation operating system. It's not hard to see the company's point. For years, Dell, HP, and other OEMs have competed solely on price in the consumer market. To be fair, Microsoft itself bears some responsibility for this -- during the Vista Capable lawsuit, it emerged that the company had deliberately weakened its own standards to let Intel sell weak integrated graphics solutions that never would've qualified under the original plan. HP, which had committed to Microsoft's original roadmap and shipped only notebooks with higher-end solutions, got tossed under a bus.

The situation, however, is far from being all Microsoft's fault. Companies like Dell and HP helped create this problem when they outsourced their own software development to the lowest bidder and accepted bribes from other software companies to stuff their systems with badly-written bloatware. HP has occasionally bucked this trend, but not consistently enough to make a lasting difference. As a result, IT websites publish semi-regular articles on how to remove all the crap you don't want from a system you just purchased.

Take a moment and consider just how insane that is. Car analogies might be overdone (and stock electronics aren't always the best), but imagine the equivalent article headlines in a host of other fields.
  • Unhappy With Chapters 27-32 In New Harry Potter? Here's How To Remove Them
  • Dealer Paintjob Stalls Engine -- We Walk You Through A DIY Solution
  • Fixing Fideaux: Electrolosis For Dogs Key To Surviving A Hot Summer Season

He's so much cooler!

The DIY/whitebox market continues to exist in no small part because consumers are deeply distrustful of OEMs who shovel call centers off to India, ship cases with edges you could shave with, and who don't even have the guts to demand their software partners give them quality products with full-year subscriptions.

Don't mind the bloat. Enjoy your new PC!

Microsoft is pushing back because someone has to. Ask yourself this:  Would you trust a 3mm keyboard made by Dell, HP, or another major OEM? The answer, for me at least, is a dubious "Maybe." My experience with Microsoft-branded peripherals, in contrast, has been uniformly excellent. Zune may have failed to create an ecosystem for itself, but the products were well-built. My MS keyboards and mice have been flawless. The Xbox 360 had significant problems early on, but resolved and moved beyond them.

If Surface heats up, the other OEMs have two stark options. They can continue their race-to-bottom, devouring each other in consolidations and acquisitions until only the brand names are left and every PC component and system has been outsourced to Malaysia -- or they can start building names for themselves as innovators.

I'll close with this. I recently reviewed an HP Z620 workstation. I was astonished at the build quality. The system --a 16-core behemoth -- was whisper-quiet, the ducting and component spacing was excellent, the case was a svelte midtower that looked tiny sitting next to my Corsair 800D. You know the first thought that went through my mind?

"I'll be damned. HP still knows how to build hardware."

That's a perception the company can bank on, if its got the guts.