Redmond gets into furniture-making

A new stragegy by Microsoft surfaces

And now, the Microsoft coffee table. Don’t kid yourself, Microsoft is going into the furniture business. The product that Microsoft unveiled recently under the name “Surface” isn’t a technology, a reference design, a user interface, an application, a PC or an appliance. It’s furniture. And yes, that really is the business Microsoft intends to get into.

Why? Maybe because after years of bleating about “Microsoft innovation”, someone in Redmond finally understands why that’s an oxymoron. The IT industry hates real change, and, big and powerful as it is, Microsoft can’t move the entire IT industry.

But move furniture? Now that’s a possibility.

In case you’ve somehow missed hearing about it, Surface is a 42-by-21-inch (106-by-53cm) coffee table with a large touch screen built into the top. Several users can work on it at once, without an external keyboard or mouse in sight.

Yes, it runs Windows Vista, and it has Ethernet, wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity. But as a PC, it’s a terrible idea. Giant touch screens are miserable to use for office applications. And that’s what PCs are for, right?

In a nutshell, that’s the Microsoft innovation problem. As long as Microsoft only sells software, the rest of the IT industry has to make the hardware for it. But everyone knows what hardware runs Microsoft software: PCs. And PCs are optimised for office applications. So to play to its installed base, Microsoft can’t stray far from the same old stuff.

And Microsoft can’t get into the PC hardware business either, because that would risk alienating its biggest customers. High-end mice and keyboards from Microsoft? Sure, but not PCs.

Thus, the Xbox game console, a piece of Microsoft hardware that doesn’t antagonise Hewlett- Packard, Dell or Lenovo.

And thus, the Microsoft coffee table. Like the Xbox, Surface is built and sold by Microsoft. It isn’t a reference design that Microsoft will license to other vendors so they can add in Microsoft software. That’s the business model for Microsoft’s cash-cow products, but that business is slowly running dry.

True, Microsoft will have to come up with applications that are tailored for furniture. But because Microsoft controls the hardware, that’s not so hard to do. If something needs a big change, Microsoft doesn’t have to get the whole IT industry and its entire installed base to go along with it.

Weird as it sounds, in the IT business, Microsoft is an 800-pound gorilla chained to a million-ton mountain. But in the furniture business, it is just one more little guy — and the master of its destiny.

If all this seems a bit removed from what corporate IT does, it is, at least for now. Only a few casinos, hotels and retailers will get Surfaces this year, and their IT staffs will doubtless treat these coffee tables as the specialty items they are.

And there’s no guarantee any other IT people will ever have to worry about them. At US$5,000 to $10,000 per table (NZ$6,690-$NZ13,360), Surface could wind up being the wrong furniture at the wrong price, and another expensive dead end for Microsoft.

But don’t get complacent. Microsoft plans to push Surface as a consumer product eventually, once it gets the price down. (Adjusted for inflation, Surface actually costs about the same as an IBM PC in 1981). That could drive Surface into our reception areas and executive offices.

And what Microsoft learns from Surface could well show up in other Microsoft products we use, both software and hardware. That makes it worth keeping an eye on for that reason alone.

Maybe most important, Microsoft’s coffee table business might be the first clear sign of a very different, much less predictable Microsoft. A genuinely innovative Microsoft, yes, but also a Microsoft with even more control over how fast it can move to change its products — and how fast we’ll have to move to keep up.

Which could mean that very soon we’ll be needing a lot more coffee.

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