Steve Ballmer appears at the Microsoft event announcing the Surface tablet

Think Microsoft’s hardware efforts are just a hobby? Think again. According to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, hardware is set to become a core component of his company’s future.

“This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves — as a devices and services company,” he wrote in a letter to investors yesterday.

Ballmer’s message is an important one, as it comes two weeks ahead of the launch of both Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, Microsoft’s latest stab at hardware.

Both products are key to Microsoft’s shifting strategy, which Ballmer says means a more consistent integration of software, services, and hardware. This is a proven strategy that’s worked extremely well for Apple, and one that Microsoft has every reason to emulate.

But while Microsoft is stepping up its own hardware efforts, Ballmer also stressed that the company isn’t leaving its hardware partners behind.

“In all our work with partners and on our own devices, we will focus relentlessly on delivering delightful, seamless experiences across hardware, software, and services,” he wrote.

In all, Ballmer uses the word “partner” eight times in the letter, an emphasis that’s not particularly surprising  given some of the mixed reactions of Microsoft partners to its Surface tablet:  HP called it a sign of leadershipLenovo doesn’t see it as much of a threat, and Acer is plain terrified of it.

While it’s too early to say which of these reactions is most justified, we do know this: Device announcements are going to be the norm, not the exception, for Microsoft in the future.

Photo: James Pickover/VentureBeat