Is it possible to build the perfect laptop? This is one of the questions that ran through the mind of Mike Nash, Vice President of Customer Experience and Portfolio Strategy at Hewlett-Packard. In 2015, he invited a handful of his former Microsoft coworkers to dinner at a Thai restaurant in Redmond, Washington. Nash was intent on using information from HP's customer surveys to solve as many laptop usability problems as hardware and software tweaks would allow. With the launch of Microsoft's Windows 10 on the horizon, and with Apple gaining PC market share, this was the perfect time to open the floor to an entire laptop rethink. HP had just been knocked out of the top spot (after a six-year reign) by rival Lenovo. The time for innovation had come.
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"We spent all of our time looking at what made a detractor a detractor," Nash said. "It was things like Wi-Fi, battery life, the touchpad, and how fast is the system. We looked over every crazy detail about how to build a better computer. We sat down and made all the hard trade-offs in hardware versus software."
The conversations between Microsoft and HP started as a weekly, hour-long meeting on Friday afternoons. After a few weeks, they spanned the entirety of Friday afternoon. "After a while," Nash joked, "you couldn't tell who was working at Microsoft and who was working at HP if they were on the phone."
After 14 months of dialogue, HP and Microsoft had partnered to create the HP Spectre x360, a premium convertible ultrabook that, based off its aluminum chassis, slim design, and full-size metal keyboard, was clearly designed to one-up the Apple MacBook Air. In addition to winning an Editors' Choice nomination from PCMag, the laptop was heralded by other publications as "powerful," "sexy," and "almost perfect."
The Thanksgiving Dinner
The conversations and subsequent partnership between HP and Microsoft proved that Apple wasn't the only laptop manufacturer that was capable of delivering style and performance. The collaboration between HP and Microsoft continues today. Of course, Microsoft's relationship with its original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) hasn't always been Thai restaurants and Editors' Choice laptops.
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Microsoft (the software manufacturer) and the OEMs (the hardware manufacturers) have had a turbulent, albeit fruitful relationship. In fact, less than a year after the Spectre x360 hit the market, Microsoft, in a bold and unpredictable move, unveiled its very own convertible laptop: the extraordinary Microsoft Surface Book. Also chosen for an Editors' Choice award, and the darling of the technology review industry, the Surface Book was Microsoft's first foray into laptop hardware; it was a gorgeous, long-lasting, business-ready device capable of competing with the Apple MacBook Pro. Laptop junkies loved the Surface Book, Microsoft's OEM partners didn't.
"We're not happy about that," said Marius Haas, President of Enterprise Solutions at Dell, at the time in response to a question about Microsoft's decision to enter into the already-competitive space of its OEM partners. Dion Weisler, now the CEO of HP Inc., agreed. "That was a good answer," Weisler remarked.
The frustration was reasonable: The OEMs were struggling to hold their ground in a market that had been contracting since its peak (from 2008 to 2012) when manufacturers had collectively sold as many as 352 million PCs in one year according to Gartner Research. By 2015, that number had decreased to 288.7 million—and Apple's influence was intensifying. Microsoft entering the field with a device as stunning as the Surface Book could only seemingly hurt Microsoft's partners.
"Microsoft and our OEM partners are like your family at Thanksgiving Dinner," Peter Han, Vice President of OEM Worldwide Marketing at Microsoft, told PCMag. "But at the end of the day, we're family. We've been together for decades and we expect to be together for a lifetime. It's hard, close, honest work together, with conversation."
Han and Microsoft don't buy the notion that Microsoft's entrance into laptop manufacturing will hurt its OEM partners. In fact, through extensive collaboration, a diversified portfolio, and consistent innovation, Han said he thinks a rising tide will float all (but Apple's) boats.
"We know the PC market had some issues over the last number of years but we're seeing some life in it," Han said. "We're focused on the growth niches: two-in-ones, all-in-ones, and gaming…Windows has always been the big tent computing platform. We're all about openness, innovation, and diversity. We serve up computers to people of all different tastes and walks of life. There's literally thousands of OEMs who build Windows devices. We fully understand that computers are moving more into other aspects of peoples' lives—the car, the coffee shop, the airport. We're thankful for the partners that help us serve. We don't want to get locked into a narrow definition."
Today, there are more than 1,500 new Microsoft- and OEM-built Windows 10 devices on the market. Some of these niche devices include the Lenovo ThinkCentre X1, an all-in-one PC that can serve as the centerpiece for any stylish office space; the HP Elite x3, a Windows smartphone that's expandable up to 2 TB and catered toward business users; the Acer Spin 7 2-in-1, the thinnest convertible on the market; and the Acer Predator 21 X, a gaming laptop that is the first laptop of any kind to boast a 21-inch curved screen.
The Next Breed
Perhaps no other OEM device deserves to bear the Windows 10 flag more than the Dell XPS 13. The XPS 13 is PCMag's recommendation for high-end desktop-replacements suitable for professional photo and video work. When fully loaded, it can feature a QHD+ (3200x1800) resolution touchscreen, an Intel Core i7-6560U processor, an Intel Iris 540 graphics card, 1 TB of storage, and 16 GB of RAM.
Perhaps more importantly, the Dell XPS 13 introduced the market to the "InfinityEdge" display, which enabled Dell to cram the screen size you'd typically find on a 13-inch device into an 11-inch frame. The design provides the illusion of a borderless screen that extends from corner to corner and side to side. The XPS 13 has been heralded as one of the best laptops on the market, not only by PCMag (which selected the laptop as an Editors' Choice winner) but by virtually every other technology media outlet as well.
Today, Dell is working on building a convertible version of the Dell XPS 13. The tricky part about designing a convertible with an edge-to-edge display is that, when the device is used as a tablet, the edges and corners of the screen are typically the locations where users hold the device. Without some sort of tablet-mode software solution for this issue, users will accidentally click on links and buttons at the edges of the screen.
This is where a partnership between Dell and Microsoft would become a collaborative, mutually beneficial effort. Dell wants its hardware to be revolutionary. Microsoft wants its Windows 10 software to enable revolutionary, diverse, and mobile experiences.
How The Relationships Work
Each of the OEMs with whom I spoke schedule regular calls and face-to-face meetings with Microsoft to coordinate hardware and software needs. For the typical laptop, conversations start 12-18 months prior to its launch date. These conversations range from daily phone calls between the Windows team and OEMs when major software updates are being delivered, to quarterly executive meetings during which the top five executives at Microsoft fly to the OEM's headquarters (or welcome the OEMs to Redmond).
"The [laptop creation] process is years in the making," said Han. "We're working on holiday 2017 as we speak. The devices we will bring to market started on the drawing board last year in 2015."
Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo each told PCMag they are committed to delivering the following devices and features for CES 2017 and beyond: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and Pen support for digital inking. In other words, the experiences Apple has yet to offer on its own desktops and laptops.
The OEM partnerships grew out of a need to collectively weather a steadily contracting market while fending off a formidable and ever-advancing competitor. For Microsoft and its OEMs, it's about staying one step ahead of Apple and the consumer and business markets. This means open collaboration on avant-garde design and technological innovation but even more importantly: this means a constant give-and-take between what the software is capable of doing and what the hardware needs it to do.
"In the course of a long relationship, there's always a back and forth dialogue," said Han. "Life is about trade-off and choices."