Eating your own, Microsoft style

Microsoft's version of Apple's "cannibalization" isn't pretty, but it's probably necessary.

Microsoft is getting more aggressive with its Surface sales strategy.
Microsoft is getting more aggressive with its Surface sales strategy. Microsoft

Eat your own, or somebody else will. That's the new mantra in the device world.

Here's what Apple said this week on that topic.

In terms of cannibalization and how we think about this, I see cannibalization as a huge opportunity for us. One, our base philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we do, somebody else will just cannibalize it and so we never fear it. --Tim Cook.

This was said in response to an analyst's question during the company's first-quarter earnings conference call. Earlier in the call, Apple, in its prepared remarks, said that it sold 4.1 million Macs in the quarter, more than a million less than the 5.2 million sold a year ago in the same period.

But iPad sales appear to be more than compensating: 22.9 million iPads were sold during the quarter compared with 15.4 million in the year-ago quarter.

So, how are PCs faring in comparison? Worldwide PC shipments totaled 89.8 million units in Q4, about 6 million less than the 95.9 million shipped in the same period last year, according to IDC.

Problem is, the PC industry doesn't have -- and didn't have for years -- something like the iPad to cannibalize (a word I use loosely, as its original meaning has been hijacked by analysts) old-school designs, so there is no net gain. It does now have Microsoft, though.

Microsoft (now a PC maker, by the way) isn't so much cannibalizing as trying to eat its customer's lunch. All in a very controlled, civilized way, of course. (And very necessarily, many would argue.)

Here's what Microsoft said this week during the company's earnings conference call about the Surface tablet (via Seeking Alpha).

With the broadening of the Surface lineup, we will continue to highlight the power of Windows 8 tightly integrated with fantastic hardware. --Peter Klein, chief financial officer

Translation: more Surface stuff on the way. More nibbling on partners' blue plate specials.

Meanwhile, Windows 8 PC purveyors are desperately trying to replace traditional PCs with designs that don't exactly cannibalize but straddle the old and new. Acer (which isn't fond of Microsoft the PC maker ) has, for example, the Aspire S7, which is arguably one of the top, aesthetically speaking, Windows 8 touch-screen laptops out there right now. And it now has a pair of Windows 8 Iconia tablets that become laptops when attached to dedicated docks.

And then there's the No. 1 PC maker, Hewlett-Packard. It has a good Windows 8 touch-screen laptop in the Spectre XT TouchSmart and a low-cost touch alternative in the Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook.

And it also offers the detachable Envy x2 tablet and the ElitePad 900 business tablet.

But will those ship in numbers to compensate for the decline in conventional designs? Only future IDC quarterly numbers will tell.

And one final thought. I would suggest that Apple has kind of set up the MacBook as a straw man in its argument about cannibalization.

That is, it's made the MacBook line ripe for cannibalization. Let's see, a $1,099 MacBook Air or a $329 iPad? Or a $1,699 MacBook Pro Retina or $599 iPad 4? That's a pretty easy decision for a lot of people looking for a second computing device.

Just as importantly, Apple isn't trying to hybridize the MacBook. That would effectively stanch the flow of some buyers to the iPad. No twofer designs, i.e., no touch-screen MacBooks here.

And that could ultimately be an Apple weakness. PC makers will continue to improve their hybrid designs and, I suspect, eventually a few will nail it. And those will become big sellers that might eat Microsoft's lunch.

With the Acer Aspire S7, you get a laptop with the key attribute of a Windows 8 tablet, a touch screen.
With the Acer Aspire S7, you get a laptop with the key attribute of a Windows 8 tablet, a touch screen. Acer
About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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