Microsoft Surface Tablet Puts Pressure on Dell, HP

By Robert J. Mullins  |  Posted 2012-06-20

Microsoft Surface Tablet Puts Pressure on Dell, HP

Now HP and Dell know what they're up against when they start to build tablet computers to run the new Windows 8 operating system, and it's not just the tablet king Apple iPad, but their own software partner Microsoft.

Rather than just rely on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Asus and others to preinstall Windows 8 on the new PCs they manufacture, Microsoft followed the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs' "the whole widget" philosophy and introduced the Surface tablet June 18 in Los Angeles. While Microsoft still plans to license Windows 8 and the related Windows RT to manufacturers as it has always done, it'll be sharing it with Windows OEMs, two in particular, whose tablet presence in the market is rather weak.

HP thought it could respond to the iPad by acquiring Palm in 2010, taking its webOS mobile operating system and installing it on a tablet called the HP TouchPad, which it began selling July 1, 2011. Just 49 days later, HP killed off the TouchPad. At about the same time, then CEO Léo Apotheker announced that a strategic assessment was under way to determine whether the entire Personal Systems Group (PSG) within HP would be spun off as a separate public company or, perhaps, even sold. Soon after Meg Whitman replaced Apotheker as CEO on Sept. 22, that sword of Damocles was removed from above PSG's head.

HP also open-sourced the webOS software, which is now being developed by a group called Enyo. However, a couple of tech news Websites reported May 25 that Matt McNulty, one of the Enyo engineers who, according to Wireless Mobile News, was responsible for "99 percent of the code," reportedly left Enyo for Google, home of the Android tablet OS. Google declined to confirm that.

This whole picture begs the question of whether HP has the talent or even the inclination to build a new line of tablets by fall, when Windows 8 is to be released. Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, thinks the answer is yes.

"On the x86 side, they probably have most everybody that they need in the PSG engineering group to develop an x86 tablet. That's not a long stretch," said King, who notes that HP has considerable experience with the x86 Intel chip architecture that has long powered HP desktop and notebook computers. Windows 8 will come in two variations, one for x86 architecture tablets and Windows RT for ARM-based devices.

As for HP's ability to make an ARM-based tablet, King is confident that ARM processor manufacturers such as Broadcom and Nvidia would be happy to sell some consulting services to their OEM partners along with the ARM processors.

HP Unlikely to Shy Away From Introducing Windows 8 Tablets

And King says CEO Whitman has said publicly that HP plans to bring out both x86- and ARM-based processors to coincide with the launch of Windows 8. HP declined to confirm that or comment for this story.

Given the recent setbacks in its tablet strategy, HP should consider itself on notice, said King.

"I think the company's got something to prove with Windows 8," he said. "As to the rumors about the spinoff or sale of PSG, I'm assuming that the folks in the engineering group will take that as a challenge to really deliver the goods when the Windows 8 devices come out this fall."

As for Dell, its tablet lineup consists of a Windows 7-based Latitude XT tablet, said Dell spokeswoman Ellen Murphy in an email. Dell introduced the Inspiron duo in late 2010 as a "convertible" that could be turned one way to make it a tablet, and another to make it into a traditional laptop. But it was discontinued last spring, Murphy said, without further explanation.

"We plan on offering a Windows-based tablet targeted towards enterprise customers when Windows 8 is available," she stated.

For Dell, as well as HP and the other OEMs, the Microsoft Surface introduction does give them an opportunity to aim for a midmarket tablet offering.

"[The Surface] is kind of a Lexus product, it's going to be pricey, and so there's still a Toyota market that these guys could play in if they can figure out how to do it," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group.

While pricing for the Surface hasn't been disclosed, Enderle expects it to be pricey given the technology that goes into one of its coolest features, the optical display. Not to be confusing, but the display is based on Microsoft developed technology called "Surface," which has been used for a number of years on table-size interactive displays.

The display can actually "read" material shown in front of it, such as a business card or a photo, and images can be moved around the display area using hand gestures. Enderle couldn't say positively, but he believes that a Microsoft Surface display has a featured role on the TV series "Hawaii Five-O" where agents stand around a table at their headquarters and look at mug shots of suspects, maps, crime photos and other documents as they conduct their investigations.

His point is that the optical display intended for the Surface tablets is going to be expensive, but it's made by Samsung and that OEM could potentially use it in any Windows 8 tablets it may make. But the others might choose another type of display to lower their prices.

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