Microsoft Reverses Course, Locks Down Tablet Hardware In Apple-Inspired Move

The close integration between hardware and software has become an iconic Apple trick. Is Microsoft borrowing this idea for tablets running Windows 8?

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It looks like Microsoft is establishing some strict control over how tablet makers design machines that'll run Windows 8. Possibly a smart move, it's Microsoft sticking a sign in the road saying "do it our way" and it's a business model inversion from usual Windows thinking that would seem directly influenced by Apple.

We're due to see a first public showing of Windows next-gen for tablet PCs this week, but according to people inside Microsoft's diffuse partner chain there's actually an interesting story unfolding quietly behind the scenes that's separate from the UI fluff: Microsoft is imposing some pretty strong control over the hardware requirements for compatible tablets. In fact, MS is saying that chipmakers, (which can include ARM designs for the first time, not just x86 derivatives), keen on building tablets for Windows 8 must only work with a single computer manufacturer. In return for accepting this restriction, the firms will get incentives. This sounds horribly familiar, and could be interpreted as MS tiptoeing once again into antitrust territory that's seen it punished before. But actually it's more complex.

What MS is trying to do is reverse the ill performance of earlier Windows code from a user point of view. MS's model has always been partly free--it designs the code, and you sign up to be an OEM, but apart from the fact it has to run on an x86 processor system Windows has been designed to work on the widest possible range of machines, running a hugely diverse array of hardware components. This drove MS's business model--get its code on as many machines from as many different makers as possible so it gets used by as many people as possible privately and at work.

It worked, meaning Windows is now ubiquitous. But it also hamstrung MS because Windows is stretched over such a wide range of machines it often tears and breaks, leading to user familiarity with DLL files, tweaking the registry and the Blue Screen of Death. And now, as some argue, it's led to Windows possibly being obsolete.

But here's the tablet computing paradigm, led by Apple, which exercises vice-grip control over every single aspect of hardware and software. There are only two core iPad models, two iPhone models and a handful of Mac variations--the close integration between hardware and software has become an iconic trick, and enables Apple to promise its gadgets really do "just work."

And that's exactly what MS is trying to do. The idea of limiting tablet hardware should enable Microsoft to dodge some of its usual compatibility gripes, and it'll let makers who sign up (the system isn't mandatory, which is how MS is side-stepping antitrust issues) streamline their design, build, and test phases. It'll also gain them access to features that improve the performance of Windows 8 on their particular tablets, and possibly access Windows licenses for a smaller fee. 

The upshot is MS gets fewer, but better-performing variations of a Windows 8 tablet on the market, makers will get better margins, and the public gets an MS code that just works a bit better than it may have otherwise. Not everyone's pleased, of course, Acer's CEO J. T. Wang went on record saying the move is "very troublesome" to him, mainly because his firm is used to playing fast and loose with MS code--it's partly what enabled Acer to make millions from the netbook revolution.

What can we conclude from this? Microsoft is trying to adapt its business model to a new world order, on a new computing paradigm that it totally failed to innovate a decade ago when it first tried a tablet OS. Tablets are a whole new way of computing, and users really do want hardware that "just works"--a Blue Screen of Death on one is almost untenable. Also, Apple's influence is extensive, pervasive and felt by everyone entering this new market. And elsewhere too--Intel's new ultrabook laptop model is essentially a MacBook Air. Its led by Asus' UX21 machine, so much so, we almost expect another Samsung-esque lawsuit to pop up.

[Image: Flickr user napfisk]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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