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Summary:

With a new Windows release, Microsoft is playing up to one it’s key advantages that’s easy to overlook: By licensing its software, buyers can personally choose from a variety of device sizes and form factors. But to play it safe, Surface RT is all Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 platform is set to debut this week on Oct. 26 and the company has already introduced its new Surface with Windows RT tablet. With the build-up to the software launch event, Microsoft’s hardware partners are wasting no time in announcing desktops, laptops and more that will run on the new operating system. Last week I suggested that so far, Microsoft hadn’t made a compelling case for people to purchase the Surface device, but new device announcements are reminding me of one key advantage for Windows 8 and Windows RT: Device variety.

Now this isn’t a new concept at all. In fact, it’s one of the key talking points that Microsoft has used for the past two to three decades. By creating a software platform that supports a vast array of hardware components, computer makers can design devices as they see fit. Google actually provides the same strategy with Android, which is why you see smartphones and tablets in varying shapes and sizes running on Android. Contrast that to Apple, which keeps everything in-house: From software to hardware to services, Apple designs products with minimal variance between models. That provides a different advantage in that Apple’s products are highly optimized and work consistently.

Seeing this new LG Windows 8 device over at Liliputing is what reminded me of this difference. Take a look at the LG H160 tablet: It’s not for everyone, but there’s likely to be a group of consumers or enterprises that crave a tablet type of computer that has a slide-up mechanism hiding a full QWERTY keyboard under the screen.

LG Windows 8 slider

LG can do that because it controls the hardware design that runs on Microsoft’s software. Going back to the Apple comparison — you won’t likely every see various iPads with and without keyboards or with a choice of a half-dozen screens sizes. Heck, it’s nearly been 3 years since the first iPad was announced and we’re just now expecting to see a new one with a smaller screen.

Surface RT standIronically, while this is a key advantage for Windows 8, it almost seems that Microsoft is trying to have it both ways with Windows RT. The Surface tablet, which I expect to get some hands on time with later this week, is an all-Microsoft product from beginning to end, the same approach that Apple uses. That represents an important strategy change for Microsoft as it historically hasn’t designed or made Windows computers. But other hardware partners will also be making and selling Windows RT tablets so in the near future, form factor choices will follow the Surface tablet. So that advantage of “choose the hardware design you like” will filter down to Windows RT as well.

Regardless of whether you like a company to design both your device hardware and software or not, evidence suggests that consumers desire more choices. There are a number of factors why Windows — and for that matter, Android in its respective market — has a majority platform market share. Choice of hardware is surely one of those factors, which of course, is highly related to price differentiation  And that’s something I neglected when thinking about Microsoft making its case to generate interest in Windows RT and the Surface tablet. The company still has to deliver useful software and services, for sure. Choice of hardware, however, can help make up for deficiencies in other areas.

As devices become more personal than ever before, I think this choice may be worth more now than it did, say five or 10 years ago. Am I placing too much emphasis on it? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know how much the hardware choice actually plays into your purchasing decisions.

  1. Apple is not a long term problem in phones or in tablets they are doomed to be a niche product
    with their strategy ( iphone has some sub 20% smartphone market share,depending on quarter).
    That said Microsoft doesn’t have all that much variety,The RT version is pretty limited to just 2 SoCs (a third maybe soon) and there is no sub 10 inch RT tablet.For Win 8 the options are 2 low price, but still not all that cheap ,from iIntel and AMD and all else pushes prices in a range that can only cannibalize traditional PC sales. Vs Android there isn’t all that much flexibility and prices are pushed higher by the OS and in the Win 8 version the Intel CPU ads to the cost as well as the need for more NAND and RAM.
    Win 8 tablets based on anything more powerful than Atom are also too bulky and heavy.Tablets are,as it is,a bit too heavy so there is no chance for those to get in an ideal range anytime soon.
    All in all Apple is only an imaginary enemy,perpetuated by the mainstream american press,that has a deep need to be Apple’s PR machine and Microsoft has to compete with Android and whatever else might come but it’s main problem will always be cost.
    Apple doesn’t offer choice,Apple is crippling it’s devices to force consumers spend some more money on other Apple products and services (no microSD slot) , you are limited to only 1 app store no matter what (so they can get a cut from everything you buy – regulators should really step in here) ,proprietary connectors,updated every so often to force users into updating accessories sold in Apple stores.Apple is charging you 100$ for 16GB of extra NAND when they pay 60 cents or less for 1GB..and i can keep going but what’s the point.

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  2. Hardware choice matters to very few people. In fact, most people prefer the “it” devices, if they care at all. Android and Windows have huge numbers because they are cheap and easy to obtain, not because they are better or more desired. Sure, they have true believers, but those are a small minority. The majority buy what is cheap and does the basics.

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  3. Check out the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, ThinkPad Twist, and ThinkPad X230t, all very similar in formfactor but also very specialized and all that from a single manufacturer. One solution is never enough for everyone.

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  4. It’s not hard to see right now that computing and communicating are getting more diverse and this is all tailored to the user experience. Is it a phone or tablet? Is it a microsoft PC or tablet or phone? There’s a full range of sizes of every device with different input devices. We’re all different and how we use these devices will decide what form factor we want for each situation. We can pay up for more functionality with a windows oriented device. We can go to cheap cloud devices like chromebooks and nexus 7’s that still have a good user experience. Do you want one device or many? A chromebook and nexus 7 is still cheaper than a window 8 PC that merges tablet and laptop in one device. Some people will see the single device that accomplishes what 2 other devices do and see synergy. Other people will see compromises and want 2 devices rather than 1. I think google’s cheap cloud devices gain share starting right now and Apple gets even more challenged with low cost google devices undercutting them. Microsoft could do ok too if desktop to phone to tablet is seamless without having to transport anything between devices. Any problems though and I’ll stick with my windows PCs and android device strategy.

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  5. If Apple shows us anything, it is the importance of the user experience, which, I think relates chiefly to the marriage of hardware and software.

    The licensing thing is only an advantage for MS as long as there are no consumer-grade free alternatives. The cost of a full blown Windows license is one of the reasons I run OpenElec on my HTPC and, principally similar to the reason I run FreeNAS on my NAS. FreeNAS took quite a bit of time for me to configure to be useful and OpenElec took less. I’m consciously making a trade-off between my time and money here, which most people won’t elect to do. Android, however, shows the next generation of options, costs nothing and is useful out of the box. Competition should mean that there is always a cheaper Android option.

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