With reorg, Microsoft bets big on home-grown hardware

New group dedicated to devices means a head-to-head battle with OEMs, analysts argue

Microsoft's reorganisation is the biggest shot yet fired against the company's core partners, the computer makers who have made the software developer a technology giant, analysts said today.

"There were clear lines of demarcation where Microsoft's efforts ended and OEMs' started, but this could challenge OEMs down the road," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an interview.

Moorhead was referring to the corporate reshuffling announced earlier today by CEO Steve Ballmer -- specifically the creation of a hardware group within the company.

The Devices and Studios Engineering Group will be led by Julie Larson-Green, who will oversee all hardware development, from the Xbox and Surface to mice and keyboards. In his memo to employees today, Ballmer said that she would also assume responsibility for the "supply chain, from the smallest to the largest devices we build."

Larson-Green, a former lieutenant to Steven Sinofsky, who until he was ousted last fall ran the Windows division, was most recently head of Windows engineering, and shared responsibilities for desktop and tablet OS team with Tami Reller, former Windows CFO.

Because Devices and Studio Engineering will be one of just four engineering groups -- the others focus on operating systems, applications and services, and cloud and enterprise -- and because Microsoft has never had a unit at that level dedicated to devices, Moorhead interpreted the reorg results as a major change in direction for Redmond.

"This is the first time they have ever had a division called 'Devices,'" said Moorhead. "To me, that means Microsoft is very, very serious about hardware, as serious as Apple is about tablets."

Unless Larson-Green's fiefdom ends up smaller than the weight the new structure seems to assign it, and unless Ballmer's mantra of "devices and services" is a smokescreen, the company must expand its hardware offerings.

Moorhead certainly expects that to happen. "One of the first things they'll do is a Surface notebook," Moorhead predicted. "Second, they'll do a smart watch or some kind of wearable [computer]."

And because turning a profit on hardware, PCs included, requires a large-scale commitment -- necessary to purchase components at reasonable prices -- Microsoft will, in effect, become a direct competitor with its OEM (original equipment manufacturing) partners, the Dells, the HPs, the Lenovos of the world.

"PCs require scale, and are just not suitable to niches," said Moorhead, a former executive with AMD, the chip-making rival to Intel. "They were acting this way before [with the Surface tablets] but this is whole new level. This is such a big change that I'd argue it's a reinvention of Microsoft."

Another analyst agreed.

"Microsoft doesn't have an incredible track record on hardware," said Bob O'Donnell of IDC. "Surface isn't exactly tearing up the charts. For [hardware] to become a core focus, I just don't know, it seems odd to me. But they will expand their hardware. I expect a Surface phone, more Surface tablets, including a smaller tablet, and more.

"Microsoft has taken shots at OEMs before," O'Donnell added, referring to the surprise debut a year ago of the Surface tablet line. "But the [Devices and Studio Engineering] group reinforces that. This is another shot at the OEMs, no question."

But two other analysts rejected that line of reasoning, believing that, corporate revamping aside, Microsoft is not about to alienate its OEMs, which produce the overwhelming bulk of all PCs, tablets and smartphones, and those device categories' countless accessories and peripherals.

"The fact that Microsoft has a 'devices' group says nothing about its relationships with OEMs, whether [Microsoft] will be more competitive with OEMs," said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that focuses exclusively on tracking its target's every move.

David Cearley, Gartner's lead Microsoft analyst, echoed Helm, but in even stronger terms. "They've been very clear that they're committed to targeting specific areas, high-value niches only, that can demonstrate the capabilities of their operating systems," said Cearley, essentially repeating the positioning Microsoft took last year when it raised a ruckus among OEMs by moving into hardware.

"But Microsoft competing head-to-head with OEMs? No," Cearley said. "They'll expand Surface with different screen sizes and smaller tablets, but the market for those devices will still be targeted.

"Microsoft still needs to work with a broad set of OEMs" to have scores, or even hundreds, of different device designs on the market, Cearley continued. That breadth of choice has been a decades-long selling point Microsoft has relied on to tout its software, and it's not about to walk away from that philosophy.

But the recasting of the company -- the recounting, over and over, that Microsoft is now "devices" as well as "services" -- was too dramatic for Moorhead to believe it wouldn't change Microsoft and how it interacts with OEM partners.

"They're going after an end-to-end experience," said Moorhead. "They started off and spent most of their lives in a time where OS was king. But when OSes are free, as it relates to mobile, for example, things have to change."

O'Donnell concurred with Moorhead that the new Devices and Studios group would be much more aggressive in competing with OEMs. But he questioned whether Microsoft would, in effect, pull off an "Apple" by mimicking its Cupertino, Calif. rival, which controls much more of its ecosystem, building all its own hardware as well as crafting its own operating systems.

"Is Microsoft trying to become Apple?" O'Donnell asked. "One can certainly presume that, in fact, some of these moves are an attempt to turn them into an Apple-like company. But the key differentiator is that Microsoft has nowhere near the hardware position of Apple."

This article, With reorg, Microsoft bets big on home-grown hardware, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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