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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 19, 2012 at 2:00 AM

Microsoft Surface: Time for a reset

Microsoft unveiled much more than just two striking new gadgets on Monday.

The software giant, at a media event in Los Angeles, delivered what may be the largest update in its history, a system reset that could change the course of the personal-computer industry, which touches more than a billion people around the world.

And, yes, it’s going to take awhile to download it all, reboot and reset perceptions. Especially if you haven’t updated since Windows Vista.

Microsoft is making a fundamental change to one of the greatest businesses in history, an enterprise that transformed the Puget Sound region and continues to funnel billions of dollars a month through Redmond.

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The company’s greatest innovation was a common software platform that other companies used to build the PC industry.

You could also say it skimmed the cream, selling high-margin software to companies building lower margin hardware.

Now it’s making computers, too. Not just game consoles or experimental business systems, but full-blown PCs aimed at the fastest growing part of the market.

Not only that, Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro tablet computers look to be some of the nicest systems on the market when they arrive later this year.

No wonder that Dell announced last week that it’s going to cut back on PC development and turn its focus more toward corporate computing and consulting.

It’s too early to say how the Surface will stack up against Apple’s iPad. The biggest factor for most consumers buying these devices is price, and Microsoft maddeningly isn’t saying yet how much its tablets will cost.

If the price is within $100 or $200 of an iPad, office workers are going to have a harder time persuading their employers to buy them iPads. Why would a company buy an employee an iPad plus a PC, when they could buy a Microsoft Surface instead?

So far none of the Windows tablets shown comes close to the style and sizzle of Microsoft’s new hardware. Especially sweet are the thin covers with built-in keyboards.

The polish of Windows 8 also puts the Surface tablets into a different category than tablets running Google’s Android software.

Taken altogether, the amount of innovation and creativity that Microsoft revealed on Monday is remarkable.

Most people would never have guessed that Ballmer & Co. had it in them.

And that’s what will be the biggest challenge for Microsoft, the PC company.

Because even if the company has developed the nicest computers anyone’s ever seen and sells them for a reasonable price, it’s going to have to overcome enormous obstacles. Namely the decades of resentment among people who, rightly and wrongly, blame Microsoft for the problems and frustrations they’ve had with computers.

That’s been exacerbated by the computer industry’s resentment of Microsoft’s profitable model and its heavy-handed business practices.

Even after Microsoft repented and the quality of its software improved, competitors continued to highlight and amplify its missteps.

Microsoft is a much more diverse company nowadays and it’s been humbled in recent years by Apple’s success in phones and tablets.

But its success building huge new businesses in servers and entertainment are still overshadowed — especially in the Silicon Valley echo chamber — by fumbles like Vista, the Zune media players and Kin phones.

PC makers cutting costs and producing underpowered, old fashioned machines haven’t helped Microsoft’s cause. With growing competition from low-cost tablets, that situation was likely to get worse.

Microsoft had to do something bold to shake these stereotypes of the company as a bumbling has-been.

As one of slides in Microsoft’s Monday event said, “Here’s to the next 30 years.”

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