There's plenty of handwringing and tech speculating around the launch of Microsoft's Surface tablet--most of it about whether consumers are interested in coughing up $499 for the new toy. But the true star of the Surface--its new Windows 8 operating system, which launches today--means infinitely more to a swath of tech giants that include Acer, HP, and Toshiba. Microsoft's Windows 8 could fuel their success, and yet for the first time ever, they'll compete with Microsoft in hardware.
Then there's Apple, which looms over the launch of any new device that isn't an iGadget. Windows 8, while certainly an elegant entry to the software space  that will enable more mobile consumption, is also arriving years late to the industry, after Apple has struck a commanding lead in the smartphone and tablet markets. Just this week, for example, Tim Cook boasted that Apple sells more iPads now than any OEM competitor sells PCs. Pressured from all sides, OEMs will now be competing with each other on Windows 8; with their own software partner Microsoft for the Surface; with their own Android-powered products; and most dauntingly, with Apple.
So the question now is whether traditional hardware manufacturers--those long dependent on licensing third-party software and pushing low-cost hardware at high volumes--have finally reached an inflection point. And if so, why didn't they see it coming?
In a series of recent interviews with executives and top players from hardware giants--including Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba--Fast Company asked about industry disruptions, about their dependency on third-party software makers such Google and Microsoft, and whether they are experiencing the Innovator's Dilemma , the term coined by Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen to describe when companies put too much emphasis on current current needs rather than adapting to the technology needs of tomorrow. At a moment when most pundits are scrutinizing processor speeds, price points, and device performance, we asked how these companies now approach innovation in a world increasingly dominated by mobile, and in a mobile world increasingly dominated by Apple. We'll be rolling out the full series in the coming days.
Given Apple's announcement this week that it has sold 100 million iPads to date, we started by asking hardware manufacturers one question: Why didn't they--and not Apple--invent the iPad first?
It's a tough one. But as nuanced as the answers may be, most can be summed up in two words: Blame Microsoft.
Hardware makers like Dell and Toshiba have relied on Microsoft's operating system for decades. This culture of dependency means innovation is essentially limited by what Microsoft says is possible. Apple, on the other hand, has controlled both the hardware and software, allowing it the freedom to dream up and developed game-changing products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. As David Johnson, Dell's SVP of corporate strategy, told me , "Apple has a different business model than the Dell business model ... The reason we didn't come up with [the iPad] is because there wasn't an OS provider that could work with a tablet."
"In order to come out with a tablet, you had to have the ability at that time to influence and manage the power architecture, as well as a software layer," Johnson continues. "The reason why Apple has had so much success is because they've vertically integrated all of that into their environment. If you step back and look, that's not been Dell's historical model. We leverage and integrate others' technologies. But in this particular case, those other technologies didn't exist until now. I can simplify it to say that the Android system didn't work in a tablet form factor, Microsoft wasn't ready, and we're not an OS provider--we had a dependency on the OS providers."
Samsung mostly echoes Johnson's sentiment. "I think it's a matter of timing," says Samsung SVP David Song. "For instance, with the PC, without Windows 8, it's very hard to make such kinds of tablets--that type of hardware. Apple and Android provided ecosystems, and with Windows 8, Microsoft has just opened a new ecosystem. But before having that ecosystem, it was very hard to deliver these types of devices. That's why [a Windows 8] tablet like the iPad or an Android tablet has just been launched."
Peter Hortensius, president of Lenovo's global product group, says, "I think the global view is that everyone got a little bit surprised by touch [technology]. We had touch devices, but the industry just didn't connect the dots like [Apple]."
Hortensius lets out a short chuckle when I ask him why Lenovo didn't create the iPad before Apple.
"Well, if I knew that I might be living on a beach somewhere in a tiki hut retired," he says.
Stay tuned for more thoughts in the coming days on innovation and disruption from HP, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, Dell, and Toshiba.
[Image: Getty Images]