The Digital Skeptic: Microsoft and Dell: It's the Quality, Stupid

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Here's my two cents on Microsoft ( MSFT) taking a big fat stake in Dell ( DELL) as it goes private: It's about making a #@%&^% PC that won't #%@$#%* break.

How's this for an unexpected consequence of the interminable, nearly three-year Windows 8 hype cycle? Between test releases, betas and live versions of this never-ending software rollout, what looked like a fleet of dusty old Windows-based PCs piled up in my shop. Look, it's not fair -- or practical -- to keep ordering up fresh computers to test each nutty upgrade of Windows 8 as it showed up.

That meant older machines hung around the shop for an unusually long time, between 18 months and three years. And guess what happened? They began to fail.

Not catastrophically. No cracks, no blue screens of death or busted hard drives. Rather, across all brands and models, there was a slow trickle of broken bells and whistles: A wobbly power receptacle took down a Dell. Keys on an Acer jammed and fell off. A screen on a Toshiba somehow cracked. None of these issues, it seemed to me, were significant enough to cry foul to vendors -- a view company reps were more than happy to confirm.

"We have not seen an increase in laptop failures over the past year," Erin Davern, manager for media relations at Acer America, told me via email. I had similar conversations with folks at Toshiba and Sony ( SNE).

"We've actually seen a decrease in out-of-warranty repairs handled," Davern added.

Still ... there were the dead laptop bodies, none of which included any of the Apple ( AAPL) hardware in the shop, and it made all of us here wonder: Did Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have a similar litter of sort-of-working PCs in his office?

Because if the new-generation of Windows 8 PCs is any indication, the devil will be in the details with these newly complex, touch-oriented computers. And that quality argument is unexplored territory for Microsoft and the PC industry.

Microsoft as a hardware snob
If you have not reimagined Microsoft as a hardware company, it's time to get with the times, friends.

"It is absolutely clear that there is an innovation opportunity on the scene between hardware and software," Ballmer said at a high-profile Churchill Club event in San Francisco late last year. "And that is a scene must not go unexploited at all by Microsoft."

Ballmer is clearly not talking up the Xbox or the Kinect here. Computer hardware is what makes news in Redmond now -- specifically the Surface line of portable PCs. And after several months of tinkering with Windows 8 PCs, clearly there are durability challenges ahead for the wider PC industry.

For example, the Sony Vaio Duo 11 Ultrabook ($1,200) showed up in my shop about a month ago. I've touched dozens of similar units, and I felt this one was a solid example of a multiple-purpose touch PC.

For the record, once you get past the brain-lock moments with Windows 8 -- like finding the #%@$#%* Start Menu -- the Duo 11 is an impressive portable device for business and personal use. The keyboard is reasonably spacious. The screen and display are bright. I liked the convertible pop-up and pop-down screen mode. And I was impressed with add-ons such as media cards and screen adapters. There is even a nice touch-enabled pen for drawing and sketching on the touch tablet. All well and good.

Ray Hartjen, senior manager of public relations at Sony, told me this generation of computers is among the best-engineered and best-tested units the company has ever made.

But given all the cool features that took down the older PCs in my office -- ones that are not nearly as complex as the Duo 11 -- it was hard not to connect the dots here. Durability of all those slick new marvelously complex Windows 8 PCs will be the potential bullet in the dark looming for Windows 8.

Because you can't run cool software on a computer that does not run.

MicroHard
And suddenly, Microsoft getting control over hardware maker Dell makes sense. By digging deep into manufacturing, Microsoft extends its reach as a hardware maker and establishes a quality bar other PC makers must respect.

Let's not forget, Microsoft is just another information age company slinging a information-based product that ain't worth as much as it once was. Late last month, Microsoft rolled out a subscription-based riff on Microsoft Office in which a mere $99 gets you five (count 'em) computers' worth of code for a year -- just $20 per PC. That works out to a 20-year payback over the $399 you can end up paying for a single, traditional installed license.

That all makes getting in bed with Dell the biggest move this company has made since Windows 95. I've said it before and I will say it again: The sooner this operation is branded as "MicroHard" or "HardroSoft" the better.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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