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.