A Digital Trinity

After weeks of rumors, it seems like a deal has been put together to buy back Dell from its current shareholders and return it to a private company – not a move that has been common in the tech industry, and not common for companies of this size.   And of interesting note to myself was the fact that Microsoft is one of the buy-out partners, along with CEO Michael Dell and the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, by loaning $2 Billion dollars to help finance the deal.   This is not the first time Microsoft was invested in similar situations, back in 1997 they invested $150 Million in Apple as Apple struggled to find their footing.

However, more recently, I am more intrigued by the relationship between Microsoft and Nokia as they, together, attempt to gain some traction in the mobile space.  While the Windows Phone 8.x does not seem to be exclusive to Nokia, they do seem to be the premier brand for that platform.  While Windows 8 does not seem to be threatening the leaders in the market I do think together they can position themselves well against Blackberry (formally known as RIM).

This brings us to what was historically a strong point for both Microsoft and Deal, the traditional computer market.  Neither company has faired well as the world transitions to this “Post-PC” world.  Dell attempted and failed to gain any success with the Dell Streak – which you could best describe as an iPod competitor.  And MSFT has thus far failed to transition to the new computing environment, instead clinging to their successes of Office and Windows for the desktop.  However, you can see the market forces at work as the latest version of Windows features a far more touch oriented interface.  Though you can also see the struggle as not all the software has yet made the transition and their focus seems split between the traditional keyboard/mouse computers and the “new age” touch-based computers.  Add to that a lack of hardware manufacturers to build products that showcase the new Windows platform.  HP has essentially dropped out of the tablet market after failing in their bid with WebOS and after a promising CES 2012 many have stopped production due to low sales.  This resulted in Microsoft taking the lead in design and branding of their new Surface product – however, while they have designed and developed hardware before, this has not been an area of focus which is something I think Dell could fix.

Dell brings to the table a respected name in the industry, especially in the profitable server rooms.  But they also have been one of the leaders in digital consumer products and could provide Microsoft the hardware to showcase their new computing platform – just as Nokia has done for mobile.

In essence, this is a collaboration that makes sense; Microsoft = software, Dell = PC-type/Tablet hardware, Nokia = Mobile .  And it is a collaboration that I am not sure could happen with Dell remaining a public company.  Also keep in mind, the future is uncertain and Microsoft does not have the chops to just buy companies like they did in the past – they have to be more cautious.  If the relationships bears fruit, expect to see Dell or Nokia or both rolled up into Microsoft.  It remains to be seen if this trinity of past giants can, working together, take on the likes of Google and Apple.

Personally though, I think this is a good thing for Microsoft while I am not sure it is as positive for the likes of HP, Acer, Toshiba, or any of the other traditional PC manufacturers.  I do know that the days of the traditional PC are behind us as we steadily move toward more flexible and mobile devices for our computing needs and if OEM based companies are not moving with the times they will continue to fade into oblivion.  I actually expect that many will move towards “Chrome OS” or Android as consumer low-cost solutions as Google seems to be taking the angle that Microsoft did with Windows, with one modification – the open source nature allows each manufacturer to create their own brand of Android (ala Kindle).

The Hidden Surface

This morning a friend received an email from Microsoft announcing the pre-order availability, starting at 9am Oct 16 2012, of their upcoming Surface tablet. However, when attempting to click on the link to “surface.com” mentioned in the email it received a 404 error on the Microsoft website. The link seemed to be fixed within the hour, and at least 15 minutes prior to the 9am scheduled pre-order time mentioned in the email. However, this seems indicative of their whole tablet project.

Now, I love to bash Microsoft and have fallen into the Apple fanboy category for much of my life, however, I am interested in technology and well designed products. Google always seems to be on the cusp of having something, but never quite makes the shift from the cool idea into the usable daily. Adobe has a ton of potential that I don’t think they utilize, opting instead for leaning too much on their history and legacy products. And Microsoft seems to be doing much of the same today despite having some great ideas, a smart and hardworking staff, and almost endless capital.

Microsoft is plagued with no focus – their biggest advantage, being the Xbox, seems to not be the driving force within the company. Their other products don’t seem to meld into that. Windows, their product from the early 90’s, is still the King – when in fact is has been dropping public mindshare steadily. You can see the company is trying to grow out of this chaotic period, but they are stumbling

They haven’t seemed to be able to ouster Google from Search or Maps, though Googles business practices are forcing partners to look at Microsoft as an alternative. They were not been able to bump Apple from the iPod and Music market and succumbed to the advancement of the iPhone in the smart phone market – only recently pushing back with Windows Phone 7 which was late to the party and has not made a dent in marketshare. And while they have the Xbox already in the living room, they cannot seem to make inroads into providing a competitor to Apple TV.

Now, almost three years behind in the Tablet space they are trying to gain a foothold that has eluded other Apple competitors. The ideas they are bringing to the tablet are compelling, but they still can’t let go of their past. They cannot, or will not, just push into the future and say follow. Even after Apple has shown that a good product will drag even the enterprise crowd along.

Instead, they leave us with a compatibility layer and a product lineup that is confusing. The new devices look close to the same – but won’t share the same software and won’t share the same feature sets. A legacy Windows world is left available, but is not geared towards touch input – while the new “Metro” Windows 8 style is being introduced to the desktop world where is fails as it IS designed for touch and smaller screens. Of course this new style is built off their Windows Phone 7 designs, however, software is not compatible and devices built only a year ago will not be supported in this update. Drop “Windows” already – move on! It is not the brand you think it is.

To make things worse, Microsoft has run several dog-and-pony shows introducing the new tablet family but has yet to let reporters gain access to the new devices. So, they are now announcing pre-order availability – but for what? Don’t count me in on buying one.

Lots of marketing, lots of hype, but no product is indicative of practices back in the 80’s and 90’s where both IBM and Microsoft would announce and sell a product in order to stave off competitors who were able to get to the market first. The difference then was that MSFT, and IBM in their day, were the big boys on the block – today they are dwarfed by Apple. Very, very few people are going to hold off buying a third generation iPad for a new, unproven, and un-reviewed Surface from Microsoft.

I understand that Microsoft can’t stay quiet, Google and Amazon have both released new tablet devices and Apple is rumored to be releasing an expansion to the iPad family later this month. However, I think the choices, or lack of choices will lead to product confusion in the market and the marketing hype without solid reviews backing it up does not give me much hope in seeing long lines outside the Microsoft branded stores awaiting the product availability.

And all that is actually kind of depressing for me, as I like the ideas the Surface presents. And the newly announced pricing is very competitive – Starting at $499 and topping out at $699 for 64GB w/ Touch Cover. Though I think it is lacking the cellular data plan options and GPS support (also feel the same about the Google Nexus 7).

We will have to just wait and see – which apparently won’t be too much longer as shipping dates appear to be Oct 26th.