For all the attention paid to Microsoft’s Surface tablet this week, it appears critics and consumers have almost forgotten that a whole host of companies—from Acer and HP to Samsung and Toshiba—are also planning to release devices running Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system, which launched yesterday in New York City. On stage at the event, top Microsoft executives showcased a dozen or so PCs like they were auditioning for the QVC channel, ticking off features and specs, listing prices, and gesturing toward the products Vanna-White style. "You’ll be able to get a touch notebook on day one for only $499—I feel like it’s a commercial here, but that’s a great, great value!" beamed Mike Angiulo, the corporate vice president in charge of leading Microsoft’s partner and ecosystem efforts.
Ironically, despite all the glowing praise directed toward these products at the launch of Windows 8, it’s these very devices that are doing Microsoft’s beautiful new operating system the biggest disservice. Over the past several weeks, I’ve gotten the opportunity to experience and play around with a gaggle of new Windows 8 products, from tablets and notebooks to hybrids and big-screen desktops—and I’d be hesitant to recommend any of these products to friends, family, or coworkers (with an exception or two). This lack of compelling products represents a huge problem for Microsoft in its battle against Apple and Google for the mobile market. Most significantly, it demonstrates the downside of outsourcing hardware design to outside partners: No matter how elegant the Windows 8 software is, there’s a huge gap between Microsoft and its consumers that’s inevitably filled by third-party hardware, which acts as the stage for the operating system, for better or worse.
During my time testing these products, I came to notice certain patterns emerging—flaws and overlooked details that most of these hardware makers, or OEMs, are guilty of. Before, OEMs could get away with selling low-cost hardware at high volume. But in a world driven by Apple-obsessed consumers, who now genuinely care about high-end design and user experience, these hardware makers no longer have any excuses for shipping such second-rate products.
Despite both Apple and Microsoft trying to limit the number of peripherals their tablets require, OEMs seem intent on hawking a wide range of accessories to consumers: stylus pens, extra battery packs, external keyboards, docking stations. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the hardware makers seem to have forgotten that peripherals are a crucial part of the user experience—they must be conceived as part of the UX as much as Microsoft considered the software’s user interface. So while Microsoft designers have told me that the Surface is a "physical extension of Windows," and thus have worked hard to make sure the hardware is just as seamless and elegant—with the Surface’s color schemes, integrated kickstand, and magnetic cover that doubles as a keyboard—Microsoft’s hardware makers have neglected such efforts.
Take HP. Its ElitePad 900 tablet is perhaps the worst offender of accessory wrongdoing. It comes with what the company is calling a "Smart Jacket," a two-piece kit that snaps on both ends of the tablet to provide additional battery life and extra ports. "Smart" isn’t the adjective I’d use to describe the heavy and bulky cover. HP says it provides "military-grade reliability," perhaps a good euphemism for how ugly the ElitePad becomes with the cover attached. HP also offers docking station and keyboard accessories, two thick slabs of external machinery.
What’s worse, it’s apparent HP did little to imagine what users would do with these accessories (the two halves of the Smart Jacket, keyboard, the extra battery pack) when they’re not in use. "If you’re going on a business trip, you may just want to take the tablet," says Mike Hockey, worldwide public relations manager for HP’s $40 billion personal systems group. "Or if you’ve got a presentation, you may slap it into the jacket, so you can present, and you may want to have the keyboard with you." Again, this does not explain what users ought to do with the accessories when they’re on the go: Must they always carry the two-piece jacket kit, the keyboard, and extra battery along with the tablet, just in case?
The most jarring example of over-accessorizing is the ElitePad 900's Stylus pen. I asked Ajay Gupta, HP’s director of commercial notebook products, what users should do with the pen when they no longer need it. "The Stylus pen is actually thicker than the unit itself, so we couldn’t really do an insert," he says. Therefore, in order to store the pen, you’ll need an external cover for the tablet. Even the so-called Smart Jacket will require a clip to hold the pen. "Well, it’s really designed to be a regular pen, so you can keep it in your pocket or your bag," Gupta explains.
One of the most important evolutions of Windows 8 is that it finally accounts for mobile experiences: The OS can work on laptops and desktops just as it can on tablets and smartphones. It’s a huge step for Microsoft, which had fallen far behind Apple in creating an ecosystem of products akin to iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. Yet at no point during the many Windows 8 demos I saw did any hardware maker attempt to show off a family of products—to show the benefits of working with a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone, in various capacities.
Take Samsung. What’s baffling to me is that Samsung makes both Windows-based PCs and smartphones. In fact, it makes an Ativ S smartphone, an Ativ Tab, and an Ativ Smart PC laptop. Yet it seems as if the company didn’t think about or design these experiences together, at least not in any remotely imaginative capacity. It felt as if the smartphone division is wholly separate from the laptop division—I wasn’t once shown how these devices would interact during the demo, nor did I even see a Windows Phone 8 smartphone present during our meeting. This is a painfully lost opportunity. I just think back to what HP was able to do almost two years ago with its failed TouchPad—how the company smartly thought to let its HP tablet and smartphones interact with one another via touch-to-share technology, a feature that enables the exchange of websites, maps, and other data just by physically tapping the devices together. We’re seeing some of these style features come to Android-powered Samsung smartphones, but imagine if touch-to-share technology could work between Samsung smartphones, tablets, and PCs?
To OEMs, it seems creating a family of products means nothing more than simply making a set of devices look similar. Hogwash. The reason Apple has been so successful is because its family of products operate better as a unit, with cross-platform features (iTunes, iCloud, iMessage, and so forth) that no competitor can rival. The experiences need to be designed together.
Sony, like Samsung, dropped the ball on this front. On stage at the Windows 8 event on Thursday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer heralded how, "With Xbox SmartGlass, you can pair your Windows 8 device with your Xbox console to control your living room environment. … Your Windows 8 tablet converts into the ultimate second-screen experience."
Well, Sony makes TVs. It also makes smartphones. Yet Sony did not make any attempt to take advantage of this Windows 8 second-screen experience, at least during my demo. Nor has the company decided to create Windows 8 smartphones. So while Windows 8 could finally connect Samsung devices across its TVs, PCs, smartphones, and tablets—a feat not even Google can accomplish, due to the fragmentation between Android and Chrome OS—Sony has, for whatever reason, decided to forgo the advantages of designing for this new platform, and instead treated Windows 8 as if it were an incremental upgrade to Windows 7. (In fact, of the three products Sony demoed for me, one was a Windows 7 laptop, which the company simply upgraded to Windows 8. Seriously.)
Every hardware maker appears to be taking a whatever-will-stick approach to hardware and features, rather than trying to design an experience that feels complete and refined.
We see this most prevalently with hybrid PCs—that is, PCs that combine both a laptop and tablet. There’s the Acer W510, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, the HP Envy x2. We’ve previously detailed why this is an identity crisis for OEMs. ("It’s called the x2, like times two, because it’s two designs," says David Conrad, director of product management at HP.) But the hardware makers have also potentially created confusion in the marketplace by creating laptops that swivel, fold backward, and split apart. "Some of them flip, some of them dock, some of them convert, some of them attach," Ballmer said on stage Thursday.
Because of this new form factor, I found myself bending laptop screens backward that should not be bending backward, or wondering how to detach a notebook screen when the notebook was not meant to be detached. In other words, some hybrids swivel backward and detach; others simply swivel and fold; still, others only detach. Then there are the traditional laptops, which perform none of these acrobatic functions. (And for that matter, some hybrids that barely do either. I couldn’t count the number of times I watched company representatives struggle to detach a tablet from its keyboard, before tugging desperately on the thing to make it work properly. The common refrain: "And this … easily … slides … er … yes … slides … out … there … we … go.")
It’s not clear why this form factor is superior to selling tablets and laptops separately. Apple has famously said it wouldn’t combine the two devices, for fear of compromising on either. “The toughest thing you do with a product is make hard trade-offs,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook yesterday. "I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don’t think it would do all those things very well."
What’s more, while it makes sense for tablets and hybrid PCs to include touch-interactive screens, OEMs have not yet made a convincing case for why traditional laptops require touch-sensitive monitors. Yes, it seems like a good option to have, but hardware makers seem to be including the capability for the sake of including it. It’s unclear why the experience would improve compared to the performance of a trackpad; it’s unclear why it’s worth lifting your hands from the keys to interact with the screen; and it’s unclear what use cases could make the extra feature worthwhile. (To be clear, I’m not saying the touch feature is not worthwhile in itself; I’m simply pointing out how OEMs have not imagined a compelling use case beyond the initial novelty the touch-sensitive screens provide.)
Lastly, as expected, OEMs couldn’t resist adding their own features to their devices—features which consumers often consider bloatware. I saw a note-taking application from Sony that looked like it was created in ClarisWorks or MS Paint. And I witnessed a slew of OEMs showing off hands-free navigation tools, which allowed the PC to be controlled via camera and hand gestures. Rarely did I see the feature perform successfully (in one instance, a representative thought the solution would be to close the window curtains in order to make it work), and when it did, the experience was jittery, slow, and far from satisfactory.
Free advice for hardware makers: Less is always more.
Like having the answers before test day, every hardware maker knows what solutions will bring it success. It’s already seen the right formula from others in the mobile space, if not based on their market success then the attention they’ve gained from media and consumers: the iPad, the Surface, the Kindle Fire HD, the Nexus 7.
So when OEMs showcase new "innovative" devices, they know exactly what every tech pundit is likely to compare them to. From there, the review becomes rote: Why can you sell a worse-performing device than the iPad at a higher price? Why can you create a heavier device than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD without including as much functionality? Why do you offer a bulky kickstand accessory when Microsoft has seamlessly integrated it into its Surface?
Over and over, I’ve asked these questions to device makers, and I realize there really is no sufficient answer. I also understand that they are perhaps going after a different market—trying to sell low-cost hardware at high volumes in order to increase margins. But if that’s the case, the companies have already ceded a certain amount of the market to companies like Apple. It means they consider their own products second rate compared with competitors’ devices.
Design, as is often repeated, is all about storytelling. I normally think this a cliché, but in the case of Windows 8 hardware, it’s a motto every OEM company exec should have to chant when they wake up in the morning. Why? Because it appears these tech giants designed products without any story in mind.
They didn’t think about designing the accessories as part of the user experience. They didn’t conceive the experience as part of a family of products. They didn’t create refined and consistent form factors, nor did they integrate features worthy of the innovative software their devices run on. They simply didn’t create products fit for a market now dominated by Apple.
To be fair, there were some products that I found compelling. Acer’s S7 laptop, for example, is rather sleek, though you’d have to be blind in order to overlook the inspiration it took from Apple. But overall, there just wasn’t any significant new story here—no truly innovative designs or imagined use cases.
In the W Hotel in New York’s Union Square earlier this week, every hardware maker sat in nearly identical suites, on different floors, with their products strewn across similar tables, near equally palatable spreads of food. Tech bloggers roamed from room to room exploring the companies’ offerings. But if you were to remove the logos from the devices, it would be impossible to tell the companies or products apart. It was all the same story.
That’s not a good sign for Microsoft. Its Windows 8 operating system was inspired by the Bauhaus and followed strict minimalist principles. Its hardware makers, however, didn’t present products nearly as personal or as thought through.
The products the OEMs created feel, well, manufactured.