Microsoft’s launch of the Surface, its belated rival to Apple’s iPad, brought an interesting declaration from Steve Ballmer, its chief executive, as reported by the FT:
“We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience – hardware and software – are working together,” said Mr Ballmer.
That has been Apple’s edge in surging past Microsoft and other companies in consumer devices. By marrying hardware and software in products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad, it left behind companies that specialise in one or the other.
But the awkward fact is that Microsoft remains stuck in the middle between being a pure software company – its roots – and producing integrated devices.
The Xbox 360, its rival to the Sony Playstation, has been doing very well in the late stage of this console cycle – it captured 45 per cent of console sales in the US in May. That helps to make up for video console games being squeezed by online games.
However, Microsoft has relied on hardware manufacturers – notably Nokia – to make the devices on which its Windows Phone software runs. Nokia’s Lumia phones are its best rival to the iPhone.
Meanwhile, it remains a software company at its core. Its biggest and most profitable operations are Windows and Microsoft Office.
The more that Apple has pulled the personal technology market toward being consumer-driven, rather than led by corporate sales, the more Microsoft has been dragged towards integrating software and hardware.
Integration does not always work for Microsoft – remember the Zune music player, its rival to the iPod? Much rests on the Surface.