A Mouse and Keyboard Don’t Make a Hardware Company

Microsoft is not, and never will be, a hardware company. Please don’t go off saying “what about Xbox or mice & keyboards?”

Microsoft does not really want to build & sell hardware. Surface is akin to Google’s Nexus; a ‘north star’ product intended to lead OEMs in the right direction.

“With Surface we wanted to make sure that no stone is left unturned, in terms of really showing Windows 8 in its most innovative form. With Windows 8 you can get a tablet and a PC in a single package, and I think Surface probably proves that as well as anything. Our goal is not to compete with hardware partners. The bulk of our Windows volume is going to come from our hardware partners.”  – Steve Ballmer, Forbes, July 18, 2012

I repeat: Microsoft is not, and never will be, a hardware company.

First, Xbox, while finally turning a profit, is a shining example of how far Microsoft needs to go to truly be excellent at hardware supply chain management. The RROD debacle cost MS many billions of dollars and I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson.

I know some of the people who drove the Xbox360 hardware design and supply chain management. They are now war scarred and seasoned experts. They are the type of people you want working on the next big thing. None of them even knew about Surface until it was announced. Typical Microsoft organizational silos. (New info shows my sources may or may not have been correct. Removed this because I’d rather debate the core issue.)

Designing and building hardware is easy. That is, easy relative to SELLING hardware. Retail, hardware supply chain management, inventory management, support, etc… are huge endeavors that Microsoft has very little capability for. If you have not actually tried to build and sell a hardware product you cannot really understand just how challenging it is. The DNA of Microsoft is that of a software company. Zune proved this. The ZuneHD was (and is) a fantastic piece of integrated hardware & software. But Microsoft’s execution in selling it was bush league.

Second, a tiny, tiny percentage of Microsoft’s profits come from direct sales of products to consumers. Like less than 5%. In order for MS to seriously get into the hardware business it would need a model that enabled something close to the +40% gross profit margins Apple is seeing from its vertically oriented model. It would take a decade or more of radical change for Microsoft to make such a change, and while MS has demonstrated it can turn the ship (more like a fleet) before, I simply do not think this is a direction it can go.

I do not believe Microsoft will try to compete with Apple on Apple’s terms (vertically integrated, high-margin hardware with up-front payment and a walled garden). I believe Microsoft will try to end-around Apple by continuing with a predominantly horizontal play, enabling annuity revenue streams from connected experiencesdelivered across all of a user’s devices, regardless of whether they run Windows or not (including Apple’s devices).

We will see more hardware from Microsoft. I still wouldn’t be surprised to see a Microsoft designed & built Windows Phone 8 device this fall. There will be new generations of Xbox hardware too. And mice & keyboards. But these things are but grains of rice in a grain silo.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.