Why Microsoft Had To Take Hardware Into Its Own Hands To Compete With The iPad

Why Microsoft Had To Take Hardware Into Its Own Hands To Compete With The iPad

Microsoft couldn’t rely on a third-party to build a tablet like this.

Despite countless rumors suggesting it was on its way, when Microsoft unveiled its new Surface tablet late last week, a lot of people were surprised. It was a strange move by the Redmond-based company, who has traditionally focused solely on software and allowed other companies to worry about the hardware.

So why did Microsoft build its own tablet?

According to one of the company’s former employees, it took hardware matters into its own hands when it realized it couldn’t rely on PC makers to make the same bets Apple was making. You see, Apple has taken some incredible steps to make its iPad the behemoth it is today. And rival companies just weren’t willing to gamble.

The New York Times reports that Microsoft executives were “stunned” when they discovered the lengths Apple had gone to to source the unique aluminum cases used for its iPad from a mine in Australia.

The executives were stunned by how deeply Apple was willing to reach into the global supply chain to secure innovative materials for the iPad and, once it did, to corner the market on those supplies.

What worried the company was that rival manufacturers just didn’t seem to be willing to do the same. According to the former employee, this incident was one of the many over the last several years that pushed Microsoft to take control of hardware for the first time, creating friction between its partners who had been building Windows PCs for years.

The move was the most striking evidence yet of the friction between Microsoft and its partners on the hardware side of the PC business. It is the first time in Microsoft’s almost four-decade history that the company will sell its own computer hardware, competing directly with the PC makers that are the biggest customers for the Windows operating system.

But it isn’t necessarily the hardware manufacturers’ fault that these gambles weren’t being taken. With Microsoft and Intel, which makes most of the processors built into today’s PCs, snapping up the large majority of profits between them, there is little left for the PC makers at the end of the day. It’s in their best interests, then, to build commodity PCs that cost as little as possible to build in order to maximize their profits.

Of course, commodity devices aren’t built from high-quality, costly materials, and so the iPad has been mostly left alone to dominate the market.

Microsoft worked with other hardware partners to devise products that would be competitive with the iPad, but it ran into disagreements over designs and prices. “Faith had been lost” at Microsoft in its hardware partners, including by Steven Sinofsky, the powerful president of Microsoft’s Windows division, according to the former Microsoft executive.

But now that Microsoft has chosen to tackle hardware, the iPad may have a real competitor. For the first time, another company has the resources required to build innovative devices like Apple’s. And Microsoft has done the best it can to do that.

The Surface tablet’s case, for example, isn’t made from plastic like nearly every other tablet out there that doesn’t carry an Apple logo. Instead, it’s built from magnesium.

In a nod to Apple’s work with aluminum, Microsoft began to closely study materials that could be used to create a distinctive case for a tablet. Members of the Windows team gravitated toward magnesium, a lightweight metal that felt good to testers when held in their hands, according to the former Microsoft executive.

According to Microsoft executives at the Surface’s unveiling last week, this “one-of-a-kind” case is incredibly strong and scratch-resistant. Sure, it’s only a case, and there are other things that are more important to tablet users. But it’s the little things like this that we appreciate. Apple is famous for spending time on the little details, while other companies have mostly ignored them.

Now that Microsoft is following in Apple’s footsteps, it’s possible the Surface will be the first tablet to steal a noticeable chunk of the iPad’s market share.

  • OMFGitsJUSTIN

    This is a good thing. This is just the fire we need to push Apple to produce better products. Not saying apple is making bad things, their products are top notch. I am just saying this will help prevent them from going stagnent on upgrades or new features.

  • zviivz

    Magnesium will burn instantly when you put them in the water! I’m pretty sure I saw the fireworks during chemistry class. Sorry, I just had to poke at this. I believe the magnesium vapor has been studied by NASA. Looks like Surface has a bit of a space technology in it.

  • lymenlee

    Now Microsoft is playing Apple’s game? Change the course they’ve been on for decades? And pissing its long time partners off at the same time? Well this isn’t a mission impossible, but it demands great leadership and perfect execution. Pulling one trick (read Magnesium) or two won’t do. Believe it or not, no one can beat Apple at its own game.
    Microsoft making hardware itself is no news. Their XBOX business seems pretty healthy. A side project like that doesn’t hurt anyone, but to mess with the company’s core business is a totally different horse here.

  • DJ_JesseJames

    Yes it will only make Apple stronger. This is a great thing. Never would consider anything other than an Apple tablet but this will probably be a sale to me. Looks and sounds promising.

  • RepairGenius

    A magnesium case isn’t the only feature that’s going to be a departure from the iPad. The Surface is also going to have XBox glass and fully functioning Microsoft OS, and a keyboard. This means professionals can actually do work on it. It’s not just a toy. I think Microsoft has upped the ante here. I’m kinda wanting a Surface… Check out a full Venn diagram of the devices here. http://www.repairlabs.com/blog/could-the-new-microsoft-surface-tablet-be-the-happy-marriage-between-an-ultrabook-and-ipad [This comment function is sick. Won’t let me sign in under any ID.-RepairGenius, Curtis Taylor]

  • AvilaRoberta1

    just as Tiffany implied I am taken by surprise that some one can make $6522 in one month on the computer. did you read this site(Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/5rhIg

  • mr_bee

    I’m tired of people talking about the Magnesium case like it’s something new when it’s been done before a zillion times over.

  • diverdke55

    No, magnesium does not burn unless heated (road flares have magnesium in them). Sodium and potassium burn on contact with water. However, a magnesium fire cannot be extinguished. Wait till the Surface has an overheated battery and somebody’s house burns down (or an airplane). Adios, Surface. My Honda motorcycle had magnesium cases. Lightweight and strong. They do not use it much in planes (titanium is the choice), because of the fire hazard.

  • diverdke55

    So it has a keyboard and you can work on it. I do not work on my iPad. It is a “content consumption” device. Thats what it is for. If I want to work, I whip out the Macbook Air. That is it’s function. Can’t do both in the same form factor.

  • mr_bee

    … Check out a full Venn diagram of the devices here. http://www.repairlabs.com/blog/could-the-new-microsoft-surface-tablet-be-the-happy-marriage-between-an-ultrabook-and-ipad

    This “diagram” is a joke. Not even close to reality.

    Among other things it says that ultrabooks are all “$499-ish” in price? Not likely.

    Anyone can draw coloured circles and put labels on them. That doesn’t make it a Venn diagram, or accurate in any way, or … well, anything really.

  • Sandman619

    microsoft is giving Apple a real run for their money. While Apple is busy negotiating mining contracts for obscure aluminum ore, microsoft has been busy working in bomb shelters with anachroic chambers so they can design a kickstand that produces the perfect closing snap for their Surface ‘puters

  • technochick

    This is a good thing. This is just the fire we need to push Apple to produce better products.

    Not at all since Apple doesn’t pay attention to what the other boys are doing to make their design decisions

About the author

Killian BellKillian Bell is a staff writer based in the U.K. He has an interest in all things tech and also covers Android over at CultofAndroid.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @killianbell.

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