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Dell's Surface Pro wannabe: Threat or proof Microsoft's strategy works?

Gregg Keizer | Oct. 10, 2013
Long-time partner also dips toe into Android waters; Chrome OS might not be far behind

And bottom line, Microsoft would be happier to simply sell Windows licenses, as it's done for decades, without the hassle and expense of creating and marketing its own hardware, Moorhead said. "Even though Microsoft wants to be a device and services company, I think they feel a lot better about just selling the [Windows] license."

Ross Rubin, of Reticle Research, saw it differently. Rather than a zero-sum game — sales by Microsoft dampen those of OEMs, and visa versa — Rubin, formerly an analyst at the NPD Group, outlined a third scenario.

"What Surface can accomplish is providing a sort of permission to other OEMs that it's okay to experiment with some aspects of PC design. You see this from Apple, from an industry perspective," said Rubin, referring to copying of the MacBook Air form factor by Windows PC makers. "When Microsoft does it, it's a statement that it can work in the Windows ecosystem."

Dell made its own choices, but the marrying of detachable keyboard with a tablet, argued Rubin, was something OEMs would have been unlikely to do on their own if Microsoft had not blazed the trail.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said much the same yesterday during an on-stage Q&A at Gartner's IT conference. "Some innovations are probably easier to pioneer, both in the phone and tablet form factors, if we drive some hardware as well as some software innovation [ourselves]," he said, citing the inclusion of a stylus with the Surface Pro as an example.

"[Surface] is about the need to push forward," Ballmer added.

But the Venue knockoff of the Surface Pro wasn't Microsoft's only worry last week. Dell, long a stalwart OEM firmly in Windows' camp, also unveiled a pair of inexpensive Android tablets. Dell's 7-in. Venue 7 and its 8-in. Venue 8 will sell for $149 and $179, respectively. The tablets were Dell's first return to Android on tablets since December 2011, when it dumped the Streak 7.

Moorhead read the tea leaves, but didn't see a desertion by Dell in the offing.

"I think Dell would have rather sold a successful Microsoft product, but their hand was forced," said Moorhead. "When you look at the 7-in. tablet market, it's nearly impossible to hit that price point with an OS that takes up a third to half of the bill of materials," he continued, talking about the Windows license.

Rubin echoed Moorhead. "This shows where Dell is placing their bets. They're marrying the sweet spots of the market to what OS options they have," said Rubin. "A full-keyboard device is Windows, but an inexpensive tablet under $200, that's an Android market at this point."


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