Microsoft to PC and tablet makers: You're not our future

Microsoft's plan to build its own Windows 8 tablets puts longtime allies in peril -- and is the right thing to do

Be careful what you ask for, you may just get it. For years, Dell has been complaining about the low-margin consumer market for PCs and trying to move away from it. It's also trumpeted how little original R&D it does, to show investors it's not "wasting" money. Last year Hewlett-Packard pulled the plug on its grand ambitions to define a new computing platform that stretches from smartphones to PCs using the Palm WebOS operating system, then mused publicly about leaving the PC market entirely -- before returning to its tradition of churning out standard PCs and telling customers not to worry that cost-cutting will hurt its ability to innovate.

With Microsoft's announcement yesterday that it will make its own Surface tablets running Windows 8, Dell may get its wish to leave the consumer market and HP may no longer have to figure out what role it wants PCs to play in its future. In announcing the Surface tablets, due to be released this fall, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer cited Apple's advantage (without mentioning Apple) of integrated software and hardware. "Things work better when hardware and software are considered together," he said. "We control it all, we design it all, and we manufacture it all ourselves."

Most telling, Ballmer said nothing about tablets from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, or all the other PC makers who for years have relied on Microsoft and Intel to do the heavy lifting while they focused on assembling PC components at different price points and sometimes pitching in on original case design work. Instead, he made a mild statement about valuing partners, but it was clear Microsoft will not let others drive the hardware going forward.

Apple has become the only PC maker whose market share is growing -- largely because it ruthlessly controls its platform's destiny. It's done the same for the iPad, creating the first popular tablet market, and for the iPhone, reinventing the cellphone (knocking out Nokia and Research in Motion in the process). More important, Apple has redefined the notion of personal computing into what we pundits call "post-PC." Microsoft began following Apple's playbook last fall with its Windows 8 strategy and yesterday kicked the effort into high gear.

Google, the third major powerhouse in post-PC devices, is also taking more control of its hardware. Plans to build its own Android tablets may be announced in the next few weeks, made possible by its acquisition of Motorola Mobility and telegraphed by Chairman Eric Schmidt this winter.

Already, Google has said it will use its brand on Android devices that meet its standards -- an apparent attempt to reinvigorate the stalling Android market, which has become highly fractured with different versions of Android OS and made more confusing with multiple customizations by the major vendors. The result is that only 7 percent of Android devices run Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" seven months after its release, whereas 80 percent of iOS devices run on iOS 5 eight months after its release, according to Apple. Even allowing for some embellishment of the data, that's a big problem for Google.

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