"Microsoft has taken shots at OEMs before," O'Donnell added, referring to the surprise debut a year ago of the Surface tablet line. "But the [Devices and Studio Engineering] group reinforces that. This is another shot at the OEMs, no question."
But two other analysts rejected that line of reasoning, believing that, corporate revamping aside, Microsoft is not about to alienate its OEMs, which produce the overwhelming bulk of all PCs, tablets and smartphones, and those device categories' countless accessories and peripherals.
"The fact that Microsoft has a 'devices' group says nothing about its relationships with OEMs, whether [Microsoft] will be more competitive with OEMs," said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that focuses exclusively on tracking its target's every move.
David Cearley, Gartner's lead Microsoft analyst, echoed Helm, but in even stronger terms. "They've been very clear that they're committed to targeting specific areas, high-value niches only, that can demonstrate the capabilities of their operating systems," said Cearley, essentially repeating the positioning Microsoft took last year when it raised a ruckus among OEMs by moving into hardware.
"But Microsoft competing head-to-head with OEMs? No," Cearley said. "They'll expand Surface with different screen sizes and smaller tablets, but the market for those devices will still be targeted.
"Microsoft still needs to work with a broad set of OEMs" to have scores, or even hundreds, of different device designs on the market, Cearley continued. That breadth of choice has been a decades-long selling point Microsoft has relied on to tout its software, and it's not about to walk away from that philosophy.
But the recasting of the company — the recounting, over and over, that Microsoft is now "devices" as well as "services" — was too dramatic for Moorhead to believe it wouldn't change Microsoft and how it interacts with OEM partners.
"They're going after an end-to-end experience," said Moorhead. "They started off and spent most of their lives in a time where OS was king. But when OSes are free, as it relates to mobile, for example, things have to change."
O'Donnell concurred with Moorhead that the new Devices and Studios group would be much more aggressive in competing with OEMs. But he questioned whether Microsoft would, in effect, pull off an "Apple" by mimicking its Cupertino, Calif. rival, which controls much more of its ecosystem, building all its own hardware as well as crafting its own operating systems.
"Is Microsoft trying to become Apple?" O'Donnell asked. "One can certainly presume that, in fact, some of these moves are an attempt to turn them into an Apple-like company. But the key differentiator is that Microsoft has nowhere near the hardware position of Apple."
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