June 21, 2012 -- Last year I sat down with Mike Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate VP of Windows Planning, Hardware and PC Ecosystem. (Long title, but he leads the team that makes sure Windows software works well with the hardware on which it runs.) Microsoft was about to show Windows 8 for the first time on a Samsung tablet, and Angiulo was walking me through the features and how it worked closely with Samsung to craft the tablet.
Somewhere during that conversation I steered off course a bit (as I'm wont to do) and asked him about the current state of Windows 7 laptops. I don't remember the exact question, but it went something like this: "What are you going to do about the trackpad problem on Windows laptops?"
He knew what I was talking about. Until now, Microsoft has mostly provided Windows for machines made by other companies -- Dell, Acer, and so forth -- and using a trackpad on one was atrocious in comparison to Apple's MacBook Air or Pro. (Read my reviews of these ultrabooks, and you will see that it's not an isolated issue.)
Some might think I'm being harsh there, but the reality is that touch gestures on Windows machines often don't work, unless jumpy cursors and choppy scrolling are something you like.
Angiulo told me that Microsoft was working harder than ever with its hardware partners -- with Dell and HP and all the other companies -- to make the experience of touch both on Windows 7 and Window 8 better. He said it was setting strict hardware requirements. (They set the screen requirements, including panel types and bezel size.)
And then I asked him why Microsoft didn't just make the hardware itself.
Microsoft's mice, like the Touch Mouse, worked better than any other Windows laptop trackpad or touch-based gesture mouse on the market. And that's because Microsoft was controlling the entire experience – hardware and software.
The Surface Tablets Microsoft introduced this week are the answer to my question last year to Angiulo. (Yes, he is the one who led the team that developed Surface.)
Microsoft can't risk the trackpad problem with tablets; it can't risk having tablets that are not as responsive or fluid as the iPad. It can't risk having keyboard docks that don't interact well with the software and touchpads that don't recognize swipes.
Well, it could have, but it finally decided not to.
"At our foundation, Bill Gates and Paul Allen made a bet, a bet on software. But it was always clear that our unique view of what software could do would require us to push hardware, sometimes in ways the makers of the hardware themselves had yet to envision," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Surface Tablet event on Monday.
Ballmer himself brought it back to the mouse and showed images of the first mouse Microsoft made in 1982. "Like Windows 1.0 needed the mouse to complete the experience, we wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation." He even flashed images of the Touch Mouse.
We still don't know how the Surface tablets will perform. We don't even know what they will cost. But Microsoft's pulling the other factors out of the equation to ensure it's in charge of at least two tablets when Windows 8 hits the market later this year.
Other hardware manufacturers will still make Windows 8 tablets, laptops, desktops, and crazy computers but Microsoft's Surface will be the reference design; it is the pinnacle of how Microsoft envisions its software and the hardware working together. It sets the bar higher for the HPs, Dells, and other computer makers of the world.
And if Microsoft did that when touch became so important to laptops, I might have never changed the subject to terrible trackpads when I sat down with Angiulo, and never started recommending Mac laptops over Windows PCs for the last couple of years.