Both Microsoft and Google are making hardware, though for different reasons

Times change. For a company to remain relevant, it must change with the times. Approximately every ten years there is a technological paradigm shift. In the 90s, when information retrieval was critical to helping users navigate the wild west that was the web, Google rose to the position of search giant. Microsoft's software and productivity hey-day dominated the 80's and was the paradigm that brought personal computing to the masses.

The world has changed, and personal computing is a complex intertwining of various modalities, platforms, and ecosystems. We are technologically more connected than ever before, the power of a PC is in our pockets, cloud computing permeates our lives, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality are becoming mainstream. Personal computing is a far more complex concept than sitting in front of a PC. And search is a far more diverse and integrated experience than typing a word into a web page-based search field.

Hardware is the entry point into a company's complex computing ecosystem.

The mobility our digital experiences via the Cloud, Internet of Things, and our various devices makes personal computing an ambient experience. Moreover, AI digital assistants, bots, and intelligence-infused software makes search an experience that is integrated within our digital activities rather than solely a distinct go-to service.

Personal computing's increased complexity has made the industry highly competitive and has affected the types of computing modalities and end points companies like Microsoft and Google introduce into the market. Ecosystems, tools, and services are what companies like Microsoft and Google are attempting to get customers to buy into. Hardware is the access point to get them there.

Microsoft's method

Microsoft's hardware vision is intricately interwoven into its Universal Windows Platform vision. It is not simply a complementary component that can be easily negated. This is why early criticisms and failures of the Surface did not deter Redmond's course.

The company's Universal platform strategy required a family of Windows 10 hardware that covered a diverse range of personal computing scenarios.

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said it this way:

No technology company has as yet delivered a definitive family of devices useful all day for work and for play, connected with every bit of a person's information available through one cloud. We see tremendous room for innovation in software, services and hardware to bring the consumer this new, more complete and enveloping experience.… Our family will include phones, tablets, PCs, 2-in-1s, TV-attached devices and other devices to be imagined and developed.

Microsoft's hardware strategy is designed to provide an unbroken continuity of personal computing modalities that provide access to the Universal Windows Platform of products and services.

Microsoft's hardware provides an unbroken continuity of different modalities.

This ambitious strategy combines industry inspiring first-party hardware with "copy-cat" partner hardware that is meant, like the Surface and 2-in-1s, to populate the market with Redmond's vision of a particular product category.

The Surface Studio has inspired partners like Dell. The Surface Book and HoloLens are poised to inspire similar devices for their respective laptop-hybrid and mixed reality categories. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's ultimate mobile device, or ultramobile Surface, will be positioned to inspire partners to build their versions of a post-smartphone device.

Redmond knows that as users adopt its hardware and Universal Windows Platform, they will be drawn into Microsoft's take on artificial intelligence, bots, mixed-reality, the cloud and more, all of which will run on its family devices.

Google's Play

Google's hardware vision is as ambitious as that emanating from Redmond and just as necessary to the company's strategy. Google wants to bring computing to "your phone, wearables, car, and your home." Rather than a medium to propagate a unified platform, however, Mountain View's hardware focus is purposed to push its AI strategy forward.

The firm's decisive move toward an AI-first focus is an evolution of its information-providing heritage. Google Assistant, the company's new AI digital assistant, is like the Google webpage becoming intelligent and very personal. Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai describes it this way:

It's Google asking users, Hi. How can I help? ... Think of it as building your own individual Google.

Rishi Chandra, the company's VP of product management for Google's devices continues:

There is no better engine of answering any question that you have…

The 3 billion searches Google receives each day reveals the indispensable resource position the service has in the minds of people around the world. It is this resource that Google has "personified" as Google Assistant.

Google Home, the company's Amazon Echo-like smart home unit, and first-party Pixel smartphones are Mountain Views hardware portals to its AI assistant. Marketing for both of these products focuses on the convenience of using Google Assistant.

Pichai realizes cloud-based intelligence that knows a user across devices is a platform in itself. So though Mountain View doesn't have the range of hardware Redmond has (yet), or a unified platform like Microsoft's UWP (yet), they do have over a billion invested users. Thus even as Google builds out a hardware portfolio, with partners developing smartphones for Google Assistant and more, their Assistant already has access to a vast network of invested users and their data.

Going hard!

There's no question that Microsoft and Google are in a heated battle on many fronts: competing productivity suites, cloud services, PC's vs. Chromebooks, and even bots. Microsoft's cross-platform strategy of democratizing AI precedes the democratization of Google Assistant. Furthermore, whereas Google dominates mobile, Redmond seeks to reimagine it with a category-defining Surface.

Redmond's Surface brand has positioned Microsoft as a respected hardware maker in the industry. The company's growing and diverse range of category-defining and aspirational hardware provides multiple access points to Redmond's comprehensive Universal platform.

Google, though they don't command the same level of respect for their hardware, are highly esteemed for their ability to provide information users need when they need it. This intangible asset makes the Google Assistant-centric Google Home and Pixel devices appealing.

Microsoft's UWP and Windows 10 family of devices synergy makes its ecosystem-promoting hardware approach effective for Redmond. AI as an evolving platform makes Google's AI-focused hardware push effective for them. Will one come out on top? Or can they coexist? Time will tell.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

109 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! Microsoft and Google are aggressively pushing thier strategies'. Google's AI push with Home, Pixel phones, etc are a strong execution in the consumer space which is supported by aggressive marketing. Microsoft's hardware efforts are seeing partners embrace innovative 2-in-1 and desktop designs as well as Windows holographic VR headsets. Who has the better strategy, Microsoft or Google?
  • Good article...
  • Just wish msft would be pushing Mobile hard, like Nokia was doing.
  • Sadly information is king.  Travelled with an Android user and their trip information was excellent.  Map driving quality excellent.  My 950 felt 5 years old.  Google's access to so much information provides a great experience.  Potentially at the cost of security and privacy.  Who has the best strategy?  Ultimately Google's.  If they control the platform (mobile is also king), they have better access and control of users than anyone else can.  (e.g. you're never going to see 'Install Edge/Cortana' promoted on Android) Microsoft can push mobile services as an alternative to a mobile platform, but that just helps Google grow stronger.  Not sure how Microsoft can recover the mobile space though.  They are trying to redefine it and eliminate mobile at the moment -> why have a mobile when you can have a real PC in your pocket?  Will be interesting to see how that goes.  Without Android apps, limited I suspect.  Android emulation may have to come back.
  • When traveling in Italy last summer, my 950XL was much better at trip information than any of the iPhones that were with us.  Offline maps were excellent so that even if there wasn't a signal on my dual sim 950XL, I could still get directions.
  • spoken like a fanboy. both android and ios have HERE Maps & Nav application with offline maps available in Appstore for free, same map data like windows 10 MAps app...so your point is? just because those iphone users did not had the Here app installed...ffs, desperate fanboy.
  • I think he's likely talking about the default maps. I'm not sure where you're from, but to my knowledge Windows Mobile is very popular in Italy and there's a lot of support there. In fact, when I went to Cyprus last year, there were apps for their bus time tables there on Android and Windows but nothing on iOS. Whichever way you look at it, some countries have much better Windows Phone experiences compared to others.
  • I wouldn't agree with you. This spring while we were travelling there were four of us in the car, three of us had smartphones, and my cheap Lumia 532 turned to be the most reliable navigation device in the car. Not to mentioned that Windows Maps were relatively new in that time, and that by the time it only became better. In my opinion, as soon as they build a completely reliable mobile OS, that's when Microsoft will be able to push Windows 10 mobile's market share higher. Right now, it's really good, and the thing which we miss the most is ability to reinstall or uninstall any app, including the native ones (at least to uninstall them). That would make us easier to solve our issues with phones without a hard reset, and that's when I am going to be able to recommend a Windows phone to someone with compeltely clean conscience. And that would be it then! Then when (or if) they get higher usage share, more apps would come on their own, and those issues will begin to disappear. Only some Google services could be missing, such as YouTube, Hangouts, etc. but who cares when it's only about those few apps... That's how I see it. :)   And you sir have an awesome phone. Now I have a Lumia 730, and I hope Lumia 950 would be my next phone. Or maybe some other newer Windows phone. With Windows 10 and continuum, and with that great camera, that phone is the best on the market, and the only phone I would be willing to give away a larger amount of money. And not to mention if they manage to make a phone with full Windows 10. Few days ago my father wanted to write something over Viber - a rather long message, and he asked me if that was possible for him to do it on computer. I installed the desktop client, etc., it all took some time, but if I had continuum - I would have simply turned it on, and tell "just sit and enjoy". :) Or on TV with a keyboard.
  • I do agree that my Lumia 925 from three years ago was positively commented on by an Android user for navigation . Of course that was 8.1 days with Here maps, so I guess I can't comment on W10M, but I haven't had an issue yet with the little bit I do use my 950 for NAV.
  • Here in Australia, Cortana is virtually non existent, and if for any reason you are unfortunate enough to have to try and use Cortana, it is beyond a joke especially in the car when connected via Blue tooth.
    Googles solution on the other hand works seamlessly. Crazy thing is, 2 years ago on 8.1 Cortana was awesome here.
    This is such a major issue, MS is focusing purely on the US where Google has gone global and like McDonalds, their products are the same the world over.
    If MS continues with the US first, everyone else last strategy they can only loose this war.
  • but that is because Bing  as seaqrch engine is an disaster in other countries that do not be United states, Google has the advantage of the search engine which feeds to Google now and their services of localization and etc , a thing that Microsoft is years  back , i think in this move  as always google will win in the new war, already is Android auto there and just Microsoft has  in plans an cortana made for  automotive  purposes, i wonder what they were doing  years ago while google engineers worked?
  • As an Australian who was traveling around the world I was depressed by how Cortana was in Sydney compared to NYC.  I have moved to Android for the first time in years and I am awaiting a "Surface-phone" to sway me back.   Even on Android I am not really an app heavy person, all of the apps I have installed were available on Windows with the exception of snapchat which I would be happy to lose.  
  • MS is pushing toward futuristic visions of foldable communications devices, viewing all your information on an interactive wall in your home/office.  All the sci-fi tech in the world that really looks slick is useless if you've abandoned your base and there is nobody left to market your product to.  Nadella forgets that sometimes you must walk before you can run.  Abandoning devices and technologies that are good ​now​, because they don't measure up to the future narrative just creates a vacuum that other companies will fill while you are pushing your sci-fi dreams out to the future.  Windows Phone and Band 2 were good products.  Maybe not perfect, but definitely a platform that could build a respectably sized market base and improve upon.  When Nadella's vision of folding phones and data walls becomes reality, will there be anybody left willing to take a chance on them?  I now to the point that I figure that MS will just create their next "greatest thing", then abandon it when it isn't futuristic enough to be perfection.  I've had windows phones back since they were Windows Phone 5 (on the Moto Q). I've been loyal to the platform, and just recently purchased a 950 because it was time to replace an ailing older device.  What is the average consumer to do when alternatives are either not available or are priced for enterprise-only platforms?  I have to communicate on my device daily and don't have the luxury to wait for pie-in-sky technology that may take years to develop to the point where it can be mass produced.  Besides, who does Nadella think makes enterprise decisions? It's the average consumer that gets comfortable with a platform in their everyday use and carries that platform to business.  Nadella's got the cart before the horse.
  • wEARables like watches/bits are dead in in long term reflected by iwatch failure. They will be there in low volumes as like 3D TVs and disappear. wEYEables are the future with No-UI or NUI.  wEARables will take the form of embeddables. Holdables like iPads, 2in1s, laptops and smart phones will become non-profitable commodities in a decade.  I am also not happy with windows phones startegy but it is lost battle.    Think about cars in 2025. self-drive. It is Better with a VR or MR glasses than  touching smart phone .     That is the future.  
  • @SShelby
    THIS ^ ^
  • Google is for the crazy whereas msft is for the straight forward, at least that's what I'd like to think. Being highly productive rocking an L930 and a SB, BTW.
  • while(true)
    {
    SurfacePhone.AnnouncementDate = DateTime.Today.AddYears(1);
    }
  • Microsoft as a HW manufacturer? Did we forget what they did to Lumia/Nokia?
  • Hi Pappale: Don't forget what they've done with Surface, Surface Book, Surface Studio and Dial and HoloLens😉
  • Who needs that? You and ......?
  • You keep forgetting that no one can buy that hardware outside the US. Try to remember that. So, the sales numbers will never be 'WOW'. They (Microsoft) is a small local player.
  • Actually, my response was in direct response to Papples contention that was attempting to draw a corelation between Nokia/Lumia and thier current HW strategy. My point being they have made great products that are well received in the market my and have or are poised to inspire partners make like devices. Microsoft's hardware goals for their first party devices are not wo have WOW sales numbers per se. Thier partners are expected to make devices that populate the market just as Surface "copy cats" sale in greater numbers than Surfaces. Still for those who want and can afford certain first-party devices in countries that they are not offered, I'm sure that too is a pain point and I empathize with you.
  • Can you tell me where those factories are that carry the name Microsoft and where Microsoft employees make Microsoft hardware? Or are those factories in fact just 'partners'? Really, I don't believe Microsoft is making any hardware. They just put their name on products made by others. So, what's left? Microsoft is hiring great designers to design products like Surface, Surface Book and Surface Studio. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • That's the same thing that most companies do. Look at Apple.
  • Yes, like mister Trump. President Obama said: Mister Trump isn't making buildings. He calls in some contractors. He just put his name on it and called it Trump building.
  • You do realise that the majority of manufacturers outsource the build of their devices right? This includes MS, Apple and Google amongst others. With your comment you've included every one of them that does this rather than single out MS (which was your intention).
  • My intention was the title of this article. Both Microsoft and Google are making hardware. They don't.
  • Hi Gerard actually it Microsoft's Chief of Devices Panos Panay and his team - the Surface Team that are designing Microsoft's first party devices. They build thier d own concepts and prototypes and like most company's, have factories mass produce. The title "making" hardware is meant to convey the company's foray into the hardware segment of the industry where not until recent years have Microsoft and Google made such huge investments with teams, resources, RD, reorgs etc around producing and competing in hardware.
  • MS support is sadly lacking if u live outside the US, It's not just hardware.
    Google is truly global with devices and services that work seamlessly everywhere.
    MS products and services, by all accounts, work well in the US.
    Outside the US, good luck getting half of MS software and services to work properly.
    This right here is such a major issue that people are forgetting all about, Google is truly global, MS was but has decided to focus on the US.
    This potentially will decide the winner IMO.
  • MS wants developers to develop universal app. Why don't MS set an example by making Bing search universal outside US. Bing search outside is outdated crap. You really try out what MS puts outside US to know why MS will be a small player outside US.
  • The Lumia hardware was always top-notch, while also offering lower cost devices.  What hurt Lumia was market share, not some deficiency in hardware.  I'm an IT pro, I've had numerous Windows Phones, including my current Lumia 950, whihc does everything I need it to do.  Fast, fluid, great camera, terrific screen, etc.   Further, the Surface line of devices, outside of the RT experiement, are terrific.  I just retired my original Surface Pro due to a battery that would no longer hold a charge after 4 years.  I replaced it with a Lenovo Miix 510, which is not a Surface, but a Surface clone, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this case a good indicator that MS created a device platform and form factor that others see the beneifts of.
  • That's right, long live Surface and Miix! Another Miix owner here. :)
  • I would argue that the RT was also a good device.  It was just not accepted in the means of apps.  My cousin still uses his for school.
  • I think Nokia's acquisition was known since the Lumia 1020, when Ellop worked closely with Ballmer, then came the 1520 which had supply issues outside US and then came the layoffs, and the results where the 950 which wasn't as advanced as Samsung or Apple devices, so in short, I think it was Satya's lack of investment in mobile what caused the slowness of innovation in Mobile. Hardware.
  • You mean rescuing a flondering manufacturer, giving them 2 years to turn around that they wouldn't have had with another buyer, then finally letting them go when they could not adapt to the actual needs of the marketplace? What MS did was unfortunately necessary for them, otherwise we would have been in the current situation two years ago, but the blame for the "failure" of Lumia rests solely on the Nokia designers who couldn't figure out how to make a few marquee devices rather than an array of devices at nearly every price point in a futile chase of volume over profitability.