Microsoft Hardware Approach Misguided?

Microsoft may know software all too well, but when it comes to making its own hardware and marrying the two, the company may have something to learn. Two articles came out this week suggesting, in effect, that the software giant’s approach may be leaving at least some of its customers in the cold.

The first of these stories should interest the do-it-yourselfers who like to tinker and perform their own computer repairs. It concerns the Surface Pro. This new Windows 8-based tablet proved so popular that one of its configurations sold out literally within hours. If you purchased one and you like to open up your own hardware, you could be looking at a world of hurt: iFixit, a website known for doing a full tear-down of electronic devices, gave it their worst repairability score ever: a 1 out of a possible 10.

In their disassembly notes, iFixit noted a large amount of adhesive involved in holding both the screen and the battery in place. “We don’t understand the point of heavily-glued batteries. That kind of planned obsolescence is completely unnecessary,” iFixit observed. They also encountered literally scores of screws holding the various parts of the  Surface Pro together – over 90 at final count, in fact. “Unless you perform the opening procedure 100 percent correctly, chances are you’ll shear one of the four cables surrounding the display perimeter,” the site states in its conclusion to the teardown.

The message here seems clear: if you’re looking for a laptop or tablet that’s easy to get into, either for repairs or upgrading, you should consider looking elsewhere. It could save you a lot of heartache down the road.

The second item concerns a very different piece of hardware: the Xbox 360. And it’s not the issue of at-home tinkering that’s taken up, but rather the whole paradigm of the device. Nat Brown, a former Microsoft engineer who worked on the original Xbox back in 1999, believes the company’s current console strategy is at best misguided, and at worst, has clearly lost its way. In a blog post on the topic, he describes it as “painful to watch.”

Brown’s complaint isn’t so much with where Microsoft was planning to go with the Xbox, but how they have been getting there in the past five years. “Coasting on past momentum. Failing to innovate and failing to capitalize on innovations like Kinect…A complete lack of tactical versus strategic understanding of the long game of the living room,” he blasts.

To be clear, Brown explains, “My gripe, my head-smack, is not that the broader content/entertainment business isn’t where you want to go with a living-room-connected device. It absolutely is…My gripe is that, as usual, Microsoft has jumped its own shark and is out stomping through the weeds planning and talking about far-flung future strategies in interactive television and original programming partnerships with big dying media companies when their core product, their home town is on fire, their soldiers, their developers, are tired and deserting, and their supply-lines are broken.”

Brown goes on to say that the Xbox’s main problem is that it doesn’t have any way for small developers to sell non-disc-based content through to the device’s base of customers. “Why can’t I write a game for xBox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home xBox or at my friends’ houses?” he demands to know. “Why can’t I then distribute it digitally in a decent online store, give up a 30% cut and strike it rich if it’s a great game, like I can for Android, for iPhone, or for iPad?” This failure to execute properly, according to Brown, has lost the software giant an entire generation of indie developers who will go on to building the next great thing for some other company’s devices.

Brown also blasts the user interface, showing screen shots of a number of annoying and confusing messages that users of the Xbox are likely to see. He also notes that users often must wait quite some time before they can play a game just for the content to load: “You don’t turn on your xBox to play a game quickly – it takes multiple minutes to load, flow through its splash screens, and then get you playing. It doesn’t surprise me that most people spend more time watching videos or listening to music on xBox, because it takes to long to…wait for games to load.”

These two stories taken together show that Microsoft is doing a disservice to a certain segment of their customer base: the do-it-yourselfers, the hardcore gamers, the indie game publishers. They may not be the vast majority, but they help with the “buzz” around any particular platform, adding independent innovation to the mix. Not playing to the spark of vitality they add to a platform leads to a dimmer future. With Microsoft facing real competition from Apple, Google, and others, the software giant should not be alienating this group.