Cloning an Apple: Microsoft & Google Tackle the Hardware Question

June 2012 may well go down as the month the technology world turned upside down. That’s because something unheard of happened – both Microsoft and Google officially turned their attention to home-grown hardware.

In mid-June, Microsoft showed off Surface, its very own entry into the tablet market. In late June, Google showed off Nexus 7, its very own entry into the tablet market. Some might say it was coincidence but then, industry-watchers don’t often believe in coincidence.

We’ll get to the products themselves in a moment, but first consider, if you will, the remarkable industry shift this represents. Microsoft has become fabulously successful selling software that runs on everybody else’s hardware. Google has become fabulously successful plying the waters of the Internet and creating online tools that anyone can use. Granted, both companies have had some experience with hardware – Microsoft most notably with the Xbox, and Google via its buyout of Motorola – but building tablets from scratch is a different ball game.

The Influence of Apple

Obviously, Microsoft and Google have witnessed the ascension of iPad, which created a new category that fits somewhere between notebook computers and smartphones. iPad is yet one more piece of evidence that Apple, with software/hardware integration as its landmark advantage, is very plugged in to consumer desire.

The move by both Microsoft and Google to enter the tablet market at the same time suggests both companies are not just reading the tea leaves, they are poring over the forecasts, and what they see is something just too big to ignore. Still, it was another online company, Amazon, that beat both of them to the punch with the Kindle Fire, a low-priced tablet that has sold well. The Kindle Fire is scheduled for some upgrades of its own this month.

But the real story is the manner in which Apple revolutionized the market – again. As with the iPod and the iPhone, the iPad achieved mover-and-shaker status. Competitors have scrambled to catch up, but from a strategic perspective, everything else is second best. iPad is already in its second iteration, and rumor has it Apple is about to come out with a smaller, cheaper version.

The Big Difference

There is a big difference between Apple and all of its competitors. Apple has earned the right, with its marketing wisdom and product design, to be the tablet to beat. So what are the odds that Microsoft or Google can knock the iPad off its pedestal?

Well, the Microsoft Surface does have some intriguing pluses, including an innovative super-flat keyboard that doubles as a cover, a kickstand, and two cameras. What it doesn’t have yet is a price – and it’s likely that a version with enough firepower will be pricey. In fact, look below the surface and Microsoft Surface may ultimately be viewed as more of a notebook PC hybrid than a true tablet. And let’s be very clear – the Surface is being introduced as a device designed to leverage Windows 8, a major software upgrade that’s high stakes for Microsoft.

Google’s Nexus 7 is a very different animal. It is much more akin to tablets already on the market; in fact, with its $199 entry level price, it looks more like a Kindle Fire competitor. But where Kindle Fire opens up the world of Amazon to the user, Google Nexus 7 opens up the world of Android, including hundreds of thousands of apps from the Google Play store (though still not nearly as many as the apps available through Apple).

Google is no slouch when it comes to marketing, either. The company is bundling in some interesting extras with Nexus 7 that demonstrate its versatility, including a free movie, digital music, and an ebook. Google is positioning Nexus 7 as part of the Nexus family, which also includes the Galaxy Nexus phone (co-branded Google/Samsung) and Nexus Q, which Google calls “the world’s first social streaming media player.” The Nexus website is pretty slick – maybe almost Apple-like in its clean, streamlined design.

A Lesson for Marketers

Watching the mad scramble by wannabes in the tablet market is reminiscent of the early days of the PC. While there were many precursors to the PC (as there were precursors to the iPad), one leading company,IBM, galvanized interest and grabbed the dominant position. Then the clones started coming, fast and furious, eroding IBM’s market share. Microsoft played a large role in that shift, because its operating systems were the real magic behind the hardware. Technology historians will recall that Apple was one of the very few companies at that time with an integrated hardware/software product.

Now the cloners are going after Apple, who has consistently maintained integrated control over all aspects of its products. Interestingly enough, the new integrated Microsoft and Google products are clones not just of an Apple product – they are a testament to Apple’s core belief.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to Brandchannel.com, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

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