At large gadget conventions like IFA, the most-talked about company is often the one who isn’t there: Apple. This year, the elephant in the room is actually Microsoft and its two Surface tablets. The Surface is now the de facto competitor and the standard by which these Windows 8 OEMs will be judged. Sony and Samsung have revealed their latest tablet strategies at IFA 2012 as they prepare to enter the all-important holiday season. Both have shown off new tablets, hybrids, and phones — but as much as the two companies are going head-to-head with each other, they will also be competing with Microsoft’s Surface, and not just on specs.

Samsung’s strategy to compete is, in a word, "ecosystem." The company appears to be attempting to build an ecosystem on top of Windows 8 in the same way it has been trying to build an "S App" ecosystem on top of Android. With Windows 8, Microsoft is not only providing an operating system but competing against its own vendors with the Surface. Samsung can't simply just release PCs and tablets anymore, it needs a better story.

"We’re the only player in the market capable of creating all the products in the ecosystem."

Samsung explicitly presented the ecosystem argument during its Unpacked event today: "we’re the only player in the market capable of creating all the products in the ecosystem." Not Sony, not even Microsoft, but Samsung. It’s a smart piece of bravado that’s typical of the new Samsung, which has learned from its Galaxy line that a powerful brand can make a big difference. With Microsoft’s Surface likely set up to be the de-facto Windows 8 tablet, Samsung will need all the help it can get to keep its name in the marketplace.

The first part of that ecosystem is an all-new brand, "ATIV." It is apparently pronounced "Ah-teev," as though a Smurf just sneezed (we’ll be capitalizing it normally, as "Ativ," in accordance with our style guidelines), but that unassuming brand could be central to Samsung’s consumer efforts for its major Windows 8 products going forward. Taken together, the Windows RT-powered Ativ Tab, Ativ Smart PC and Smart PC Pro, and the Ativ S smartphone represent Samsung’s best effort to create an ecosystem ex nihilo.

Ativ-ecosystem

Although Samsung touts Ativ as an ecosystem, the actual evidence for it is a bit thinner. Both versions of the Ativ Smart PC will feature Samsung’s S Pen technology and presumably compatibility with the pre-existing Android S Pen ecosystem — though that probably won’t extend to the Ativ S Windows Phone 8 smartphone. The design language across these devices is similar, but what really ties them together is Microsoft’s software, not Samsung’s add-ons.

The story gets worse with the Ativ brand

The story gets worse with the Ativ brand: the two Ativ convertible tablets Samsung showed off actually go by two different names: there’s the Ativ brand for most of the world and the staid "Series 5" and "Series 7" name for the US. A new, unified brand won’t work if it’s not, well, unified, and will inevitabely lead to confusion between these different products.

Samsung may be trying its hand at making a coherent ecosystem and branding play, but what about Sony? Sony CEO Kaz Hirai has been promising a clearer product story with his "One Sony" initiative. It may be that it’s too early in the company transformation for that promise to become a reality, but Sony’s offerings at IFA don’t seem like a strong break with the company’s past.

Sony had a wider array of products to unveil, from Xperia smartphones to rugged video cameras, but its entries in the Windows 8 tablet battle are typical Sony: decent looking, clever, but still disparate products from a company that hasn’t found its unified voice.

The most innovative new offering is the VAIO Duo 11 hybrid, running Windows 8 and featuring a "Surf Slider" design that hides the keyboard underneath the touchscreen. It’s great to see Sony continue to experiment with new form factors, but as with most forward-looking VAIOs, it’s hard to know if it will have any staying power or — since this is Sony — a reasonable price point.

Sony also introduced the VAIO Tap 20, a table-top PC that for all the world appears to be a standard All-in-One touchscreen PC without a stand. Sony’s goal is to create "a fresh, new concept in home computing" and with a clearer raison d’etre it could have been just that, but for now this 11-pound Windows 8 PC looks more like an interesting experiment than a viable consumer initiative.

Windows 8 presents a huge opportunity to PC makers, but can they take advantage of it?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that the Surface is meant to "prime the pump" and presumably get manufacturers to innovate more on the hardware side. Sony and Samsung have come a long way toward achieving that goal with their new offerings here at IFA, but innovating on hardware isn’t enough anymore. Windows 8 presents a huge opportunity to PC makers to (at least temporarily) escape the gravity well of commoditization that has sucked in so many OEMs. Good hardware will get you some of the way there, but ecosystems and branding have become all-important now that Microsoft is in the game.