The OEMpire strikes back -- Microsoft's best buddies go Google

HP, Dell, Acer, Asus -- each of the big-name Windows PC manufacturers now has a credible stake in Android

With Windows PC sales falling like Steven Tyler at an Aerosmith concert, all the major PC manufacturers are unleashing a brace of innovative, competitive products based on Google's Android platform. In some cases, the Android alternatives go head-to-head with the same manufacturer's Windows 8 boxes, with the Android machines always cheaper and sometimes better endowed.

It's almost as if the OEMs, snubbed by Microsoft's announcement of the Surface and its condescending "you OEMs can't build great hardware, so we had to do it for you" attitude, are getting their mojo back.

Take a look at HP. With something like 15 to 16 percent of the global PC market -- and possibly the largest PC manufacturer in the world -- HP's recent hardware announcements set something of a bellwether. HP's in a world of hurt. A year ago (1Q 2012), HP was selling about 5 million PCs a month. Now (1Q 2013) it's selling less than 4 million a month, and the trend's inexorably down.

HP's fighting back now with a newly announced Android -- yes, Android -- laptop hybrid. The HP Slatebook x2 comes with a 10.1-inch 1,920-by-1,200 screen, a fast Tegra 4 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 32GB drive, and "the world's most popular operating system" (ahem, Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean"). Look for it in August at $479, including the keyboard/battery dock.

That machine will go on store shelves next to HP's current offering, the Envy x2, which sports an 11.6-inch screen at the Win8 standard 1,366-by-768 screen, a leisurely Atom Z2760 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 64GB drive, and Windows 8. It's available now for $649, including keyboard/battery dock. See what I mean about head-to-head systems, with the Android cheaper and better endowed?

At some point in the undefined future, HP will release the Split x2, another hybrid from the same mold. It has a 13.3-inch screen, also running at the minimum 1,366-by-768 resolution, Intel i3, 2GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD + 500GB hard drive (in the dock), and Windows 8. The Split x2 weighs in at 4.85 pounds, 75 percent heavier than the Android Slatebook x2. And it'll cost $799, almost 70 percent more than the Slatebook x2.

Of course the guts of each machine is different -- geared to different customers, different users. But physically they're strikingly similar. Clearly, HP is no longer willing to trust its portable destiny entirely to Microsoft.

Then there's Dell. In spite of Microsoft's $2 billion loan to a Michael Dell-led consortium seeking to buy the company, Dell had dire comments about Windows 8 in last Thursday's quarterly financial call. "Windows 8 has been, from our standpoint, not necessarily the catalyst to drive accelerated growth that we had hoped it would be," opined Dell's CFO Brian Gladden, in a brilliantly awkward bit of understatement.

Dell's been shipping Android products including, laughably, the Dell Streak, for ages, but the new Dell Ophelia is a tiny horse of a completely different color. Ophelia looks like an overgrown USB drive, plugs into a TV's HDMI port, supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, runs apps, but mostly hops onto the Web. It'll ship in July for $100. Of course, it runs Android.

Acer's CEO JT Wang has publicy expressed his warnings to Microsoft about the inadvisability of selling its own tablets, recently recanting a touch by saying Microsoft has finally learned "how people living on earth think." Acer still sells Windows computers, to be sure, but Win8 isn't where Acer's heart -- or its design dollars -- seem to be headed. Witness the Android-based Iconia A1 tablet, which will go on sale shortly for $169. No, that isn't a typo. Sure, it's small (7.9 inch) and clunky (1,024 by 768), but Acer's gearing up to sell zillions of them, leaving Windows waddling in the dust.

Then there's Asus. Between the Nexus 7 (private branded by Google, but built by Asus) and the many Android Transformer pads, which Asus has been peddling for years, the Asus mind share and market share go to Google, not Microsoft.

Of all the major PC OEMs, only Lenovo is holding its sales steady. Even though Lenovo arguably has the most to lose by playing both sides of the OS fence, its IdeaTab tablets come in Android and Windows flavors -- and it's often difficult to tell, just looking at a machine, whether it's a Google or Microsoft changeling. The Android machines are invariably cheaper and sometimes have better features. If you want a rear-facing camera on a Lenovo tablet, for example, you have to go with an Android IdeaTab; according to Lenovo's product comparison page, the Windows IdeaTabs don't have it.

Microsoft's foray into the hardware manufacturing business -- and its concommittant crowing about the superiority of the Surface -- didn't win any friends in the OEM camp. Now it's the OEMs' turn to kick some 'Softie butt.

This article, "The OEMpire strikes back -- Microsoft's best buddies go Google," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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