How Microsoft Played Its Hardware Partners

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Microsoft not only dumped all of its hardware partners before making the Surface tablet, like a boyfriend playing his various squeezes, it first forced them into a race to the bottom, leaving them once it had wrung out every last drop of their value. Until the Surface tablet, Microsoft didn't make its own machines, putting its software put in original equipment manufacturer- (OEM-) made stuff. That system, it turns out, according to The New York Times' Nick Wingfield, was a pretty abusive set-up for these hardware makers: "Manufacturers pay hefty fees to license Windows from Microsoft, putting pressure on them to make computers as cheaply as possible using commodity parts," writes Wingfield. "That, in turn, has limited their ability to take the kinds of risks on hardware innovation that have helped define the iPad," he continues. Microsoft wants some of that risk now. So, for the Surface, it has up and left these companies it forced into making cheapo devices, leaving these guys out of the future of Microsoft.

If Microsoft wants to compete with Apple in the coming tablet wars, it needs better parts. Take the laptop trackpad, a spec that Farhad Manjoo at Pando Daily believes Apple makes best. "I’ve searched high and low for a Windows notebook with a touchpad that comes close to the buttery bliss offered by the MacBook line. I haven’t found it, and you won’t either," he writes. Of course its Microsoft's own fault that the trackpad isn't good enough. Why? Seconding that point Wingfield makes, Manjoo continues:

PC makers’ inability to build a perfect trackpad is symptomatic of the larger difficulties the Windows device business faces in the mobile age. Windows device makers are used to competing on specs; they buy commodity parts, they use generic reference designs, and they stick everything together in a case and slap on an inscrutable model name. This worked perfectly well in the desktop market, and for many years it worked well in laptops, too.

Microsoft created this race to the bottom and now it doesn't want to play anymore now that the takes have gotten so high. "If PC vendors can’t even get this small thing right, how could they possibly make something as polished as an iPad?" Manjoo asks.

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The uneven balance of power wasn't the only issue hardware makers and Microsoft had, but it was the root of it all. Irked at Microsoft's domineering position, hardware makers wanted more from Microsoft when working on tablet projects. Hewlett-Packard, with the failed Slate 500, for example, "fumed" at Microsoft when it didn't make software more conducive to its hardware, says Wingfield. "Microsoft refused to commit significant resources to help H.P." he writes. When it came to other hardware partners, Microsoft has "lost faith."

So, like any bad boyfriend, totally done with these partners, Microsoft up and left, without giving its exes any notice. When the company announced its hand-crafted Surface last week, anonymous sources at both Boy Genius Reporter and Reuters mentioned "surprise" and a "sense of betrayal." But, did these companies expect anything more from an abusive relationship?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.