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

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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.