Why Microsoft must become Apple and Google

Can't beat 'em? Then join 'em. Microsoft's future may lie in stealing the strategies of its most bitter rivals.

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Et tu, Apple?

Windows still dominates the PC, and obviously Microsoft can't afford to let its flagship OS stagnate while it's busy expanding to other platforms. In fact, Microsoft should redouble its efforts to promote Windows 8 as more than just a 'tweener that straddles two disparate worlds. What's the best way to do that? Surface...lots more Surface.

There's no need for Microsoft to gulp down mouthfuls of Apple's Kool-Aid and completely kick its manufacturing partners to the curb, of course. No single supplier could satisfy the width and breadth of the PC ecosystem. But offering a wider range of Surface products would help Microsoft reduce its reliance on its hardware partners, and enable the company to take a direct role in molding the perception of Windows devices. This is what Google's Nexus devices do for Android. Hardware is just so visceral. It resonates in ways that software alone cannot.

That observation goes double in the case of Windows 8 and its finger-friendly modern UI. At CES, Windows business chief Tami Reller said that Microsoft feels the new-look Windows would have enjoyed stronger adoption out of the gate if more touchscreen devices had been available at its launch. And the Register recently ran a report (based on anonymous sources) claiming that Microsoft secretly blames its OEM partners' touchscreen qualms for Windows 8's less-than-explosive debut.

Regardless of whether Microsoft's hindsight is accurate, expanding the Surface brand would allow the company to strategically counter similar concerns in the future. An expanded Surface lineup would help Microsoft in another crucial area, as well: mindshare.

If Microsoft wants consumers to look at its operating system as more than a piece of preinstalled shovelware, Windows needs heroes. Windows needs shining stars. Simply put, Windows needs Macs--paragons of design that represent the perfect marriage of beautiful hardware and highly functional underlying software.

Few mainstream OEMs achieve reference-quality designs on a par with Apple's finest. But with the first wave of Surface tablets, Microsoft has proved that it can make hardware that's both thoughtful and attractive, and Microsoft's advertising budget is large enough to bring the company's products to mainstream attention--another feat that few of Redmond's manufacturing partners can accomplish. A strong Surface lineup could deliver a cohesive response to Macs and finally provide Windows with a true brand identity, lifting the OS above the usual free-for-all hardware hodgepodge.

The future is now?

Does this all sound crazy? It shouldn't: Microsoft's cloning efforts have already begun.

In addition to the device-spanning capabilities of Office 365's business offerings, Microsoft has released a slew of Xbox-branded apps for iOS and Android in recent years, along with dedicated apps for SkyDrive, PhotoSynth, Lync, OneNote, and Bing. The company even released an Android-exclusive--and excellent--app in the form of On{X} in 2012, and it plans to release native mobile apps for its business-focused CRM software later in 2013. We'll have to wait and see whether premier programs like the Office apps are truly headed for Android and Apple devices, however.

Microsoft has made no bones about its intention to continue making hardware going forward. In the company's annual shareholder's letter, CEO Steve Ballmer wrote, "There will be times when we build specific devices for specific purposes," as part of a continuing effort to "focus relentlessly on delivering delightful, seamless experiences across hardware, software, and services."

CFO Peter Klein put Microsoft's plans for the Surface brand even more plainly during the company's recent quarterly earnings call: "We're going to expand geographically; we're going to expand the product lineup; we're going to expand retail distribution and capacity."

Rumors of Surface phone tests and a 7-inch Xbox Surface tablet abound, and the Intel Core i5-powered Surface Pro tablet should be hitting the streets in a matter of days according to Microsoft's stated timeline. Bring 'em on, I say, and let the OEMs grumble all day long. The times are a-changin', and the very future of Microsoft may depend on Steve Ballmer and his band of merry engineers following trails blazed by their nemeses.

This story, "Why Microsoft must become Apple and Google" was originally published by PCWorld.

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