“Priming the Pump”

“No comment”

Those were the words of Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, when asked about the reaction of his PC partners when told of the Surface tablet.

Of course, this isn’t Microsoft’s first attempt at building their own hardware device running Microsoft software. They did it with the ill-fated Zune media player and with the successful Xbox console.

But what happened this evening at Milk Studios in Hollywood signals a much more pointed assessment of Ballmer’s trust in OEMs to compete head on with the best selling Apple iPad.

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Neither Zune nor Xbox ran Windows as we know it, nor did they compete head to head with current Microsoft partners such as Dell and HP. No pesky channel conflict to be found.

But that all changed today.

Think about this for a moment: companies such as Dell, HP, Sony, Lenovo and many others will now be purchasing Windows licenses from the company they are competing against in the tablet market.  Ballmer tried to downplay the conflict referring to it as “priming the pump.”

I’d call it a partner butt kicking.

Today’s hastily called event showcased the many features of the Surface (which will be offered in both X86 and RT models), including the unique foldout keyboard that doubles as a cover as well as the integrated kickstand. But we were left in the dark on such items as price, availability and battery life.

What came across loud and clear from Ballmer and his team was this: “We’ll flood the earth with our own devices running Windows if we have to.” 

The iPad wasn’t mentioned today but it loomed large because every tablet will be compared to the leader dominating the market. But that may not be the correct comparison. With the included keyboard, USB port, and MicroSD,  the Surface appears to compete more with Ultrabooks than the iPad.

I don’t believe Microsoft wanted to design and build their own hardware. Software, not hardware, is in their DNA. They had no choice with Xbox and Zune. But today, Ballmer surveyed the scene, and sent a message to every one of his OEMs that Microsoft won’t stand on the sidelines and watch Apple release integrated devices that slow Windows growth and win over a generation who may never need Windows.

Much of Microsoft’s growth over the last 30 years can be attributed to the support of its hardware partners. Choice fueled growth of Windows and the integrated approach of Apple nearly faded into oblivion in the late 90’s.

But few, outside of Steve Jobs, could have predicted the meteoric growth of smartphones and tablets which reward tightly integrated systems. That the iPhone business is larger than all of Microsoft can’t sit well with the man who once derided it.

By melding Windows 8 with its own hardware, Microsoft took a page out of the Apple playbook.

And keep your eye on what’s happening with Nokia.

Surface Phone anyone?

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