The Opposite Side of the Same Problem

Commenting on my argument that Microsoft’s Surface line is in-part to provide the PC’s need for better hardware design, Nick Heer astutely added:

…by choosing to license their operating system in a loose way, Microsoft places the reputation of their software1 in their licensee’s hands.

Nick2 then followed up to some related comments texted by Jonas Wisser, which I would like to also address. First was Wisser’s comment regarding Mac clones:

Kinda surprised you didn’t make the connection between licensing killing a quality OS problem and Old Apple.

Macintosh clones are indeed a very good connection and like Nick I am also surprised they didn’t come to mind when I was writing my piece, especially given my mind was clearly already in the neighborhood. As I wrote in my footnote:

In another example of computer industry symmetry, an increasingly irrelevant mid-90s Apple faced the opposite side of this same problem when it struggled to produce compelling hardware, leaving buyers asking why they should pay more for what seemed to be the same beige box as the competitors’.

While I agree that mid-90’s Apple faced the same problem, what I find particularly interesting is that the Mac maker came to it from the opposite side. Today’s Microsoft is struggling to convince the world that Windows and the PC are a choice on par with the more premium Mac, and not just a cheaper compromise. Microsoft is faced with a commonly held belief that Apple Macs are better than PCs enough to be worth the extra cost. Mid-90s Apple struggled because it failed to establish that same value proposition after Windows 95. A vast majority of people not only thought Macs weren’t worth their premium, but many thought that Apple was actively trying to rip them off.

The existence of Macintosh clones only adds to this symmetry. Out of desperation to improve the PC experience, today’s Microsoft has started making premium hardware that enjoys tighter integration with its Windows OS a la the Mac. Out of desperation to be competitive, Mid-90s Apple licensed Mac OS to commoditized hardware manufacturers a la Windows. The only break in this symmetry is that Microsoft has little to fear with their Surface venture whereas the Macintosh clones legitimately jeopardized Apple’s main line of business in the 90s, partly because Apple also struggled to justify their premium against the clone makers just as they did with the PC.

Wisser also added:

The problem for Microsoft is that they can’t win back control of their consumer product the way Apple did.

Their enterprise and embedded footprint is way too big.

[In my opinion], the only way they could do it would be to turn Windows into a legacy product and ship their own hardware running a new OS.

I agree 100%3, but also wonder if Microsoft needs PCs to be as good as Macs or just good enough that most people don’t feel they benefit from spending extra. Who knows if that’s possible with the current situation. I think that the best Microsoft can hope for now is that other PC vendors will eventually come to the same conclusion they’ve already reached and start producing nice enough hardware to keep users from yearning for a Mac.

Who knows? It could happen.

  1. I wonder if Google knows it can see the future. 

  2. Because Nick is clearly much more on top of his blog and engaged with the community than I am.  

  3. This is a similar point to the one I made in arguing Microsoft should have done a Metro only tablet back in 2011. While then I was talking about software partners, I think the same logic applies to hardware vendors. 

  4. I might be addicted to Markdown footnotes.