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Steven Sinofsky introduces Surface

At the Microsoft Surface announcement last week, CEO Steve Ballmer compared Microsoft’s efforts with the Surface tablet to its decision thirty years early to bundle early versions of Microsoft Word and Windows with a mouse. These products pretty much required a mouse, he said, but since PC makers weren’t shipping the devices with their PCs, and since there were few third party mice on the market, Microsoft simply made one themselves and drove adoption.

Microsoft’s bestselling hardware device, Ballmer said, is the Xbox 360. It’s sold about 70 million in seven years, a number that today’s major device makers—like Apple—could almost sneer at: Apple sold roughly that many devices in the past quarter alone, for example. But the point he was trying to make is that the proper synthesis of software, services, and hardware can result in a better experience for users. This is a claim that Apple obviously makes as well.

And here comes Windows 8.

Microsoft claims that it needed to make Surface to more fully realize its new OS, a stance that ignores the fact that many PC and device makers will make very similar devices in the months ahead. What is it about the Surface that really puts it ahead of other similar devices?

To find the answer, let’s go back in time a bit and see how Microsoft’s partners have responded to the software giant’s software initiatives of the past. One year stands out.

In 2002, Microsoft launched two new operating systems based on Windows XP, Media Center and Tablet PC. The former was aimed at a new category of living room-based PCs, while the latter targeted new highly-mobile computing devices with touch- and pen-based screen digitizers.

Neither performed very well in the market, but they both shared two very obvious similarities: Fans of the system were hardcore and intractable, and couldn’t understand why their favorite software wasn’t more popular with the general user base. And in both cases, hardware designs from Microsoft’s partners failed to live up to Microsoft’s express recommendations. What PC makers delivered in both Media Center PCs and Tablet PCs were boring, uninspiring designs that did nothing to excite customers.

Hewlett-Packard (HP), arguably Microsoft’s closest hardware partner of all, had a hand in both debacles. The PC maker delivered the first-ever Media Center PC, which featured an ugly, huge tower PC design instead of the sleek, stereo componentry that Microsoft had requested. It also provided a pretty spectacular-looking Tablet PC, the Compaq TC1100 … which was based on a bizarre Transmeta CPU that ensured it would never perform well.

HP and the other PC makers weren’t fully responsible for the XP Media Center and Tablet PC disasters. But they absolutely played a major role, and while Microsoft tried to bolster the software over the years with excellent updates, and HP and other PC makers eventually woke up and delivered better devices, it was too late. Both initiatives trickled out over time, dying a slow, quiet death as the technologies were subsumed into Windows and Microsoft and its partners moved on to greener pastures. (Netbooks, first, and more recently Ultrabooks.)

Given the high quality of current Ultrabook designs, and the peeks we got of Windows 8-era devices of all kinds, I don’t think we’re looking at another 2002 here. PC makers will deliver excellent and interesting designs, many of them. In fact, there will be several hundred new Windows 8 PC and device models in market by the end of next year.

No, what Microsoft can’t ever deliver in tandem with any PC maker partner is a unified system that offers both a perfect synthesis of hardware, software, and services, and a crapware-free, “pure” (Signature-like) experience for users. PC makers will ship excellent designs, yes. But they’ll always screw it up with their own software and silly side experiences that water down the work Microsoft has done to simplify Windows. That’s what they do.

Microsoft sells Signature PCs from a variety of makers from its Microsoft Store web site and retail stores already. But with Surface, Microsoft is essentially offering the Signature experience on its own hardware. Surface allows Microsoft to continue partnering with dozens of hardware makers while providing customers with a pure alternative. This isn’t Microsoft adopting Apple’s model in lieu of its own. It’s Microsoft adopting Apple’s model while keeping its old way of doing things as well.

There’s a lot of speculation that Surface is some kind of trial balloon, while some (myself included) don’t think it matters if Surface is ever profitable or otherwise successful. Whatever. Surface shows that Microsoft isn’t the classless brute that Steve Jobs claimed, that the company does have a soul and cares about customers. And that it can do so without sacrificing the relationships it’s made and nurtured over the years.

Microsoft is smart to make Surface, because it’s sending a message to both customers and partners that user experience matters.