Microsoft's Surface tablet looks like it could be here to stay for a good long time. And signs point to the maybe-soon-to-be-erstwhile software giant shipping even more hardware offerings down the line that are sure to further tick off long-standing PC manufacturing partners like Acer and Hewlett-Packard.
A slew of job listings posted on the Microsoft Careers site over the past couple of months hint at what's to come from Microsoft as it transitions ponderously but steadily into mobile. The job advertisements offer up a recruiting pitch for Microsoft's apparently expanding "Surface Team" and seem to imply that Microsoft is working on not just a second-generation Surface but putting together a long-term product team that may be charged with mapping out several generations of products.
Microsoft has been so coy about the Surface since unveiling its own in-house Windows 8 tablet in June that it's tough to tell what the company has planned for the device long-term (or even the short term —pricing remains a mystery). Is the Surface a one-off designed to vault the touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system into the tablet conversation when the Surface and the OS are released side-by-side on 24 October?
Nobody has officially said otherwise, but miffed OEM partners don't seem to think so, judging by their grumbling about Microsoft's invasion of their hardware turf.
HP reportedly scrapped plans for a consumer tablet running Windows RT, the flavour of Windows 8 that's optimised for the ARM chips used in almost all tablets today, after supposedly getting blindsided by the Surface announcement. Acer boss J.T. Wang this week had some harsh words about Microsoft's hardware aspirations.
Those aren't the words and deeds of partners who believe Microsoft is just doing a proof-of-concept thing with the Surface to showcase Windows 8's tablet fabulosity, along the lines of what Google has done at times with its Nexus brand to promote Android (the early returns on the Nexus 7 tablet may cause Google to change up that pattern, though).
Tech Radar makes a compelling case that "the scope of the jobs Microsoft is recruiting for shows that this isn't just keeping Surface up to date with future processor improvements" but that the company looks to be "building up a full product design and development team to keep innovating (and keeping PC OEMs on their toes with some healthy competition)."
Positions looking to be filled range from "mechanical engineers to component specialists and materials experts to driver developers and audio engineers (plus manufacturing and packaging designers)," the site notes.
Why might Microsoft be doing this, when it could severely alienate OEMs? Look no further than the Xbox. Like tablets, game consoles were another market where Microsoft arrived late to the party. They attacked that problem by building everything in-house from the Xbox game developer ecosystem to the rig itself. Now the Xbox 360 is the best-selling console on the market.
So maybe Microsoft is looking back at its successful game console strategy when it appraises the tablet market and saying, why not do it all over again? The difference is that with the Xbox, nobody else wanted to pitch in and help, so Microsoft was forced to go it alone. With tablets, OEMs appear to be keen on the possibilities with Windows 8.
But by Microsoft's lights that difference may be academic, because very few of those OEMs have been very good at making tablets. Instead, Microsoft may have concluded that the mobile future is better navigated with a new approach that isn't so cozy with PC makers, especially ones which haven't shown a great deal of innovation in recent years and have been caught flat-footed by the mobile revolution.
At any rate, they're hiring over in Washington State.