PC Makers Stand by Their Microsoft Amid Company’s Move Into Tablets

Photograph by John Lund/Corbis

Microsoft's partners haven't said much in response to the software giant's unveiling of its own Windows-powered tablet.

Considering that one of their closest partners had just announced an invasion into their territory, Microsoft’s cohorts in the personal computer world were awfully brief with their comments this week.

They’re either declining to comment on Microsoft’s plan to release two models of tablet computers running the company’s upcoming Windows 8 (see Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Samsung) or offering a Stepford Wives-esque reaffirmation of how much they value their relationship with Microsoft.

Toshiba said it “plans to keep a good cooperative relationship with Microsoft.” No mention of the fact that Microsoft’s new Surface tablet, demonstrated at a press event Monday in Los Angeles, competes directly with the prototype Windows 8 tablet that Toshiba unveiled earlier this month at the Computex show in Taipei.

Dell said it views Microsoft as “an important partner to Dell and we look forward to delivering a full slate of Windows 8 tablets later this Fall.”

Microsoft also continues to be one of Lenovo’s “most valued partners.” Lenovo, which says it’s the No. 2 tablet seller in China, said it welcomes the competition.

PC makers don’t seem willing to discuss it, but Microsoft’s moves aren’t going to engender much goodwill, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Ballmer’s comments at the event and the company’s decision to create its own tablet imply that Microsoft no longer felt it could rely on its hardware partners to translate its vision for Windows into compelling devices, he said.

“Microsoft is not taking any chances whatsoever that anything is going to impede their vision on how mobile computing will look in the future,” he said. “They are doing it at the expense of the hardware companies that are their licensees.”

It’s an approach Microsoft executives mocked Google Inc. for taking with its Android phones, saying the search giant’s decision to make its own phone and acquire Motorola Mobility would alienate partners, he noted.

That acquisition was also met with a series of comments from hardware makers — highlighted on Google’s website — about how much Google’s step was welcomed by the partners it would now compete with and how close the new rivals remained with Google.

And there’s the rub. PC makers may not be Steve Ballmer’s biggest fans this week. But they have few alternatives. They rely on Windows to sell desktop and notebook computers — a far larger business than tablets for most of them. Apple doesn’t license its operating system and Google is likely to make a tablet of its own through Motorola, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis.

Perhaps some will shift resources away from Windows. Maybe we’ll see a variety of slates using a Linux OS (other than one made by Google).

What we’ll likely see is these companies remaining at Microsoft’s side, sort of like those wives of politicians who were caught cheating on them. We’ve seen those press conferences, where they stand there awkwardly to show their support. But where they stand once the cameras are off may be an entirely different place.

To be fair, some of the PC makers have also embarked on relationships with Google’s Android, as both Microsoft and its partners scramble to better compete in an increasingly mobile world.

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