27 May 2012

Beating the race to the bottom

Disclosure: I work for Google.

It's not a secret that Windows hardware is often crappy, compared to the Mac — heavy, bulky machines with low-res screens, poor battery life, legacy hardware like BIOS and VGA ports... And they are often depressingly ugly. There's a reason people say things like "If you want a MacBook Air-like laptop that runs Windows, buy a MacBook Air and run Windows on it."

This drives many people to buy Macs and, once they do so, the majority end up using OS X. Losing the highest end of the market to OS X can't be healthy for the Windows ecosystem. Even the minority who buy Macs to run Windows on are effectively subsidizing OS X development.

One reason for the crappiness of Windows hardware is that for a significant number of people, price really is the most important attribute. But it's also a result of commoditization — when people can't tell the difference between a $400 laptop and a $1000 one, is it any surprise that they end up choosing the $400 one? This results in a race to the bottom, where high-end devices are penalized and are partially driven out of the market, leaving a preponderance of mediocrity.

Is it possible to defeat this race to the bottom, while still continuing to serve the low-end market? After all, Windows, unlike OS X, can serve this part of the market, which is an unquestionable advantage, and one that one would be dumb to squander. Instead, is it possible to differentiate the market? Cars come to mind, with a fairly well-known premium segment consisting of BMW, Audi and others.

Marketing is the classic tool for this, to convince people (rightly or not) that one family of products is really superior to another.

"Ultrabooks" are the obvious example, but they are limited to one form factor (ultralight laptops) running Intel chips. (AMD is out, unless you consider HP's "Sleekbooks".) What if someone wants a power user's laptop, like a 15 or 17-inch Macbook Pro? Or an all-in-one, like the iMac? Or a HTPC like the Mac Mini? These users won't be served by ultrabooks.

We need branding that transcends form factors. The obvious solution is branding related to the operating system, Windows: Microsoft should advertise, and let OEMs advertise, "Windows premium" PCs that meet a high bar, such as the following:

  • Retina display, at 300 pixels per inch.
  • Two Thunderbolt out ports, supporting a total of two 24-inch monitors, or one 30-inch display, in addition to the built-in one, all at 60 frames per second.
  • Thunderbolt in, since a retina display makes for an excellent second monitor to use with another PC.
  • USB 3 ports, at least 8, either microUSB or full-sized.
  • 7-hour battery life.
  • Either an SSD, or a hard disc with the maximum available capacity for its size and speed. This means that if a laptop has a standard 2.5-inch 5400RPM hard disc, it must be at least 1.5TB. An ultra-thin hard disc must be at least 320GB, and a 3.5-inch 5400 RPM desktop hard drive, at least 4TB.
  • 802.11ac WiFi.
  • 64-bit CPU (except for ARM devices, of course).
  • EFI, not BIOS.
This list is debatable, of course, but so is any categorization of any market into a premium segment. The point is not to fixate on the exact list of attributes, but to defeat the race to the bottom, by ensuring that people who care for quality and are willing to pay will have an easy way to find what they want, rather than top-notch hardware getting lost in today's sea of mediocrity. You can imagine going to a store, or online store, and finding a clearly marked category of Windows premium machines.

If Microsoft does this, we'll hopefully start seeing more beautiful, rather than repulsive, Windows machines. Everyone benefits from that.

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