The Best Is Yet To Come

For years, "wise" pundits of all things technology have chastised Apple for not opening up its software and allowed OEM's to produce non-Apple branded hardware. For those with shorter memories, this was supposed to be Steve Jobs great "error", allowing Microsoft to take off as the monopoly provider of operating systems. In any case, Apple has stuck to its guns and, in the process, maintained the kind of product quality on which Jobs based his strategy.

But recently, Apple and Microsoft have begun to shift toward less strict models. Apple now produces computers using Intel chips, making them, for all intents and purposes, "PCs". And Microsoft has stepped into the hardware market with the Xbox, various peripheral products, and now the iPod competitor Zune.

Now Microsoft is stepping even closer to the Apple model. As reported in the ever entertaining Engadget, Microsoft seems to be moving more toward controlling the hardware on which its software runs.

Re-enter Microsoft: the company's latest kick is, of course, vertical integration (see: Zune), so it should come as no surprise that Redmond's supposedly been issuing a strict aesthetic best-practices kit, called the Windows Vista Industrial Design Toolkit, to PC OEM's like HP and Gateway; apparently Microsoft's got a team of twenty some-odd designers working to guarantee the first round of Vista boxes are "objects of pure desire," sure to re-obsess jejune PC-buyers like it was Win95 all over again, even in spite of Cupertino's best laid plans.

By issuing this "best practices kit", Microsoft is seemingly encroaching on the domain of PC manufacturers. Granted they have always provided the manufacturers with hardware specifications. But now they are offering product design suggestions. Apparently, they realize that Apple's product design prowess is one of its most significant competitive advantages.

From a broadly strategic perspective, this is simply a case of a maturing computer industry moving toward greater vertical integration. But it does have some interesting implications for the future. For instance, where lie Hewlett Packard, Dell and the like when OEM's are doing the hard manufacturing (as they are today) and Microsoft is doing the product design? And why won't some Mac owners eschew OSX for Windows Vista for any of a variety of reasons? And, finally, how will open source software like Linux impact, or be impacted, by this new environment.

My suggestion is that software design and production will be more closely integrated with hardware design in the future. And that as a result, product quality will rise, but traditional computer manufacturers will suffer. I also suggest that this inherently helps Microsoft, who have for years been hobbled by the poor quality of various hardware platforms (that's you HP!).

In any case, the push for better integration between hardware and software (and media services, by the way) will only benefit the consumer. Given that this post is being written with the aid of a Gateway monitor that can't communicate with its GForce media card, an HP computer whose hard drive failed on day 366 of its one year warrantee, and a Microsoft bluetooth keyboard that works wonderfully with Windows XP, I only wish we were further down this road.

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