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Dell's Surface Pro wannabe: Threat or proof Microsoft's strategy works?

Gregg Keizer | Oct. 10, 2013
Long-time partner also dips toe into Android waters; Chrome OS might not be far behind

Although rumors have claimed that Microsoft will eventually introduce a smaller-size Surface tablet, a so-called Surface Mini, perhaps an 8-in. device, speculation has recently centered on a 2014 debut. In the absence of Microsoft pioneering the smaller form factor, some Windows OEMs have tried their hands, but with limited success.

That has handicapped Windows' uptake in tablets: The majority of tablets sold this year will be 7-in. and 8-in. models.

Moorhead wondered whether Dell's move into Android at the low end might spark Microsoft to be more flexible in its Windows license prices to OEMs eager to cash in on the small-tablet market. "Yes, I do expect that they're getting more competitive with license pricing," Moorhead said of Microsoft, pointing to reports that it has tried to entice HTC into producing more Windows Phone-powered smartphones by offering drastic cuts on OS fees.

Dell's reentry into Android also makes it more likely that the Round Rock, Texas company will stick its toe in the Chrome OS waters, said Moorhead and Rubin. Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system, powers the line of notebooks generically known as Chromebooks, such as the $279 device Hewlett-Packard introduced this week.

"Dell supporting Chromebooks is a lot closer now that they've moved to Android," said Moorhead. "They're trying to maximize the sales opportunities."

At the moment, that would be a bigger blow to Microsoft than Dell's tentative step with low-priced Android tablets, as Chromebooks — although only about 3% of sales in the U.S. during the back-to-school season — compete directly with the bargain basement non-touch Windows laptops.

But Dell might be hesitant to make such a move: Although there's no publicly-known details of a possible quid pro quo between Microsoft and Dell for the former's $2 billion loan to the latter, part of the funding used by Michael Dell and his backers to privatize the company last month, there were strings attached to the deal.

As long ago as February, analysts speculated that there might be a "gentlemen's agreement" between the companies that committed Dell to pushing Windows as the OS for its hardware, or prevented it from straying to alternate operating systems, like Chrome OS.

"At Dell, the pressure is on for Chromebooks," Moorhead maintained today. "HP did a major launch at a very competitive price [with the Chromebook 11]. That puts the pressure on Windows in the U.S. and Western Europe."


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