Microsoft Takes Apple by Surprise, Pours on the Heat

| Columns & Opinions

The contrast between Microsoft’s October 26 event and Apple’s October 27 event has the PC industry in a buzz. Observers who have been diehard Apple fans are casting jealous eyes towards the new Microsoft products. Meanwhile, some observers who have been against Apple for political reasons are making some solid observations that don’t have the traditional earmarks of being self-serving and misinformed.

[Note: this discussion isn’t about phones. Or VR. Or games. It’s about PCs and Macs.]

Did Apple make everything right with the Mac community yesterday? Did the company heal the wounds from so much product neglect? Are Apple’s instincts about the Touch Bar better than Microsoft’s instincts about how technical and creative professionals want to work? Has Microsoft shown signs of a reinvigorated ability to innovate under CEO Satya Nadella? These are some of the questions that are on my mind in the aftermath of those two events.

Microsoft Surface Studio.

Microsoft Surface Studio. 28-inch touch screen. Image credit: Microsoft

Let’s walk thorough the Microsoft PC technology, then some of the reactions.

First, there’s a good product overview of the Microsoft Surface Studio over at The Verge. “Microsoft’s Surface Studio is a stunning desktop computer.” There, you’ll find videos of analysis by The Verge and Microsoft’s introduction event.

Next is Mashable’s article. “What it took to design the Surface Studio.” Lance Ulanoff spoke with Ralf Groene, Microsoft’s head of industrial design and revealed key insights into the design. After reading these articles and viewing the videos, you’ll have a really good feeling for what the Surface Studio is all about and the innovation involved.

One decent article that summed up the event comparison was at MarketWatch. “Apple demolished by Microsoft at their respective PC events.” Articles like this won’t make Apple happy, but then, as an old boss once told me, “perception is everything.”

Apple, having dealt from a position of technical strength and favor for so long, seemed to get wrapped up in the Touch Bar to the exclusion of its overall customer base. The USB-C-based 2016 MacBook Pros get so immersed in the idea that touching the display of a notebook computer is ergonomically unsound that they’ve ended up forcing the customer into certain technical and operational cubbyholes. I mentioned a few yesterday.

More importantly, the painful gap in time from the last MBP updates (March, May 2015) seemed to overwhelm the technical significance of the Touch Bar. When contrasted to what Microsoft has achieved with the Surface Studio, the reaction amongst the press, perhaps for the first time, came down with sobriety and logic on the side of Microsoft.

Microsoft Surface Dial

The Surface Dial rests on and works right on the display itself. Image credit: Microsoft.

One of the things that may have assisted in this assessment was the Surface Dial (US$99) which, on the surface, has the instinctive technical feel of something from a science fiction future in contrast to Apple’s touch sensitive Touch Bar which is merely cool. (But see page 2 here for more.) Time will tell if Microsoft’s instincts prove superior or are simply a trade-off in concepts. In the meantime, Jason Snell at Six Colors looks at the relative merits of touching your work or touching the Touch Bar in “Perpendicular philosophy.

These products are very new. We’ll have to see how the two philosophies end up meeting consumer needs and which turns out to be solid money maker. But the sense I have, at this early stage, is that Apple had become complacent and was caught by surprise. Nadella’s Microsoft which had met with so much derision under Steve Ballmer is now the fresh thinking underdog in the PC arena.

Apple is not the kind of company that explicitly, outwardly acknowledges this possible shift. Healing will have to come in the form of its new product designs and decisions from now on. And less stony silence.

Now, on to Apple’s vision. That’s on page 2.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of October 24th. Apple’s Vision Beyond the Touch Bar

21 Comments Add a comment

  1. bdkennedy1

    I’ve seen every Apple keynote since 1998. After watching the MacBook Pro keynote, I can firmly say that Apple is repeating the steps of the early 1990’s. Confusing product lineups and ridiculous pricing that started with the new MacBook last year.

    I bought an Apple watch 6 months ago and now I’m selling it because I never used it for anything other than getting notifications.

    The excitement is gone. I was actually excited watching Microsoft’s keynote the other day. There was no excitement watching Apple’s canned keynote – where everything is magical and the most beautiful thing Apple has ever created.

    The Apple magic is over. It’s been 5 years since Steve left and Apple is in reverse.

  2. I’ve got some time left in my Mac, so I’ll see where Apple goes before jumping ship, but at this point I’m not hopeful. I’ve been using their stuff since 1995 professionally, and since the 80s as a student. Would be sad to bid them adieu, particularly given they are the only tech company whose privacy policies are worth a damn and that’s no joke these days. Nevertheless, I can’t argue with the fact that a Surface Pro beats the pants off of an iPad Pro as a professional tool. What a weird world.

  3. bdkennedy1:
    You are dead on with your comparison with the early ’90s Apple. Lots of things, but few that actually work as advertised. Lots of models, but none that really do what you want. To that they’ve added gadgets like the AppleWatch that are gee whiz neat, but really do little that I, or if the recent BBC article its to be believed, few others need. Meanwhile their desktop Macs are moribund, their AirPort routers are very out of date, they’ve dropped displays completely, the iPod line is dieing.

    I was impressed by the Surface Studio. That said I am not getting a system running Windows or any derivation of Windows. I run that at work and I’m not doing that at home as well.

    So what to do. Spend $3k-$4k on a laptop that isn’t really as good as I wanted but already cost more than I budgeted to spend? Or should I go with Linux system which I can get build to order with better specs, but it won’t work with anything else in my ecosystem and I’ll have to learn all new applications for graphics and movie making, and writing, and layout etc., etc.?

    Or maybe become a goat herder and say f-it to all these computer things.

  4. Been pondering this MacBook business. You know, I might wait and get the next gen iMac instead. I use my iPad for most of my mobile work. The MacBook spends 75% of its time on my desk attached to a monitor. I like having the ability to take it with me, but really any more it’s the iPad. I could get an iMac with better specs, more space AND a 27 inch 5k display for $800-$1000 less than an equivalent MacBook Pro, which I’d want to connect to a monitor most of the time anyway.

    Does anyone know of a good remote desktop app for the iPad that would let me run an iMac from across the room?

  5. macjeffff

    256 GB SSD in a $1799 laptop? So, I have to spend $1999 to get something usable with the new Touch Bar, before I buy AppleCare? And then I’m forced to buy a bunch of dongles, and keep track of them? The Touch Bar looks absurdly thin, doesn’t it? I guess that saves production cost. The new MacBook Pro is nice, but I’m going to put off buying one until the next generation. I can hang on for another year or so. I’m disappointed though, because I was ready to buy. I bet their numbers will be disappointing.

    I think the problem is Jonny Ive. I wish they would just tell him work on the car, and let people with fresh ideas for the Mac and the iPhone take over. I’m convinced he’s the bottleneck that’s starving the product line.

  6. The problem with Microsoft’s hardware is that it ships with Windows and I’m sorry, but I don’t like Windows all that much as it’s just not that user friendly to use. IMHO, it’s a cluttered mess with a chock full of confusion to boot. I just returned to using Windows professionally after about a 10 year hiatus and even with Windows 10 I have to say that I’m not all that impressed. Some things like refreshing the Desktop manually simply because some files got moved around, other files get trashed and so on but failed to take notice on-the-fly is just plain dumb. I have some other gripes, but that one definitely sticks out. And Microsoft has yet to get it right with the CLI though PowerShell is a step in the right direction, but falls short when compared to Bash or Zsh!

  7. The problem isn’t Ive per se, but that Apple seems to be depending on him too much to replace Steve’s vision. But he’s not Steve. Steve always had an overarching vision, and he was ready to move heaven and earth to achieve it. Ive was his greatest tool in the toolbox, but he was just a tool. He has good vision for things, but he is not a mover and shaker, and he doesn’t have the status of CEO nor Steve’s drive. Simply put, his temperament is not Steve’s.

    IMO, Tim is the problem. His focus is on many things that have nothing to do with creating product. The proof of that is that he was actually seriously considered to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate! Why would that be? He’s more politically inclined than product-minded. Apple has diluted priorities, and frankly, I am not sure they even know what their priorities are or what they ought to be. IMO, that’s their greatest problem. They are busy building buildings all over the world, and expanding their presence, playing benefactor to the world, rather than making product–good product.

    Now, I don’t think that any of those things are bad, but the problem is that they seem to consume Apple more than making product. It’s like they have a cash cow, and don’t know what to do with it to take it to the next level. Lack of vision…

  8. I just wonder if Apple had more to show but pulled it when they saw Microsoft’s lineup?

    I don’t think it’s likely but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. What was shown with updated MBPs doesn’t match Tim Cook’s comments a month or two ago about renewed interest in the Mac. Not at all.

  9. I don’t think there is a problem with I’ve as head of design. He rightly fights for everything he believes in. Certainly the direction that Apple has taken over the last few years is Cook’s responsibility. I couldn’t watch more than a couple minutes of the watch our products get thinner presentation. Could they honestly think going in that this thin Mantra plus a touch bar was going to bring Mac users to their stores. I’ve seen more exciting diet infomercials.

    They have been sacrificing function for the sake of esthetic design. There is no way around faulting Cook for allowing that to happen. Surely there must be someone at Apple who can speak up for the way users use Macs, especially pro users. They should make pro products and take the pro moniker off of these MacBooks. Their products are getting too thin and their product line is dangerously thin.

  10. I just wonder if Apple had more to show but pulled it when they saw Microsoft’s lineup?

    I don’t think it’s likely but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. What was shown with updated MBPs doesn’t match Tim Cook’s comments a month or two ago about renewed interest in the Mac. Not at all.

    I am thinking they had other products that were not far enough along to debut.

  11. BurmaYank

    The image of  I’m getting from its recent announcements & after hearing these thoughts discussed here is of a gifted operation with an expert manager who is no leader;  has been without any leader since a year or so before Steve died. ’s rudder works well, but is adrift without a course-charter.

  12. MarcusNewton

    I am in the same boat as Geoduck, I have a 2014 MacBook Pro 15″ that sits on my desk 80% of the time hooked up to other equipment. I was really hoping for new desktop Macs from the hello, again keynote, but I came away, as many did, really disappointed.

    The new MacBook Pros are nice, but a bit expensive for me. I am shocked that they are still selling the older model MacBook Pro and kept the price the same for almost 2 year old hardware.

    Jonathan Ive’s bulimia problem and Angela Ahrendts’ luxury pricing is seriously making me reevaluate my commitment to Apple.

    I guess I better start taking classes to study up on Linux.

  13. I am so disappointed with Apple. They used to be so clued in as to what the consumer is looking for. Now it seems that they are stopping up their ears and regurgitating the same old commercialize pitch but with no innovation behind it. Listen to what the people want! I’m amazed that Microsoft is now out appling, Apple!

  14. John:

    I’ve been away for awhile due to unavoidable circumstances, but have monitored, when possible, the traffic at TMO. There has been no small amount of not simply angst but dysthymia, anger and outrage over many things Apple, particularly the recent Mac event, in that interim. I’ve been uncertain if and when to post this, as well as under which column, but this seems as appropriate a place as any.

    It has been argued at TMO that one of Apple’s most important user bases, graphics and video professionals, have had a disproportionate role in propagating Apple products and enlisting new Apple clients, and that by not listening to and addressing the needs of this sector, Apple are engaged in a bloody-minded self-immolation that will possibly lead to an exodus that will cost the company their relevance and perhaps their future as a leader, with references being made to the Apple of yore and Ballmer’s MS. Apple’s failure to address these users’ demands with the Mac event was a spurn worthy of fury.

    John Kheit, for example, and not to pick on him, as he’s a smart bloke who makes excellent points, has argued for a customisable Mac Pro, as have you and others. Personally, I think that that is an excellent recommendation. For 1997. In 2016 it’s a more challenging justification, particularly in the harsh light of cost/benefit analysis to a company already challenged to meet demand across all devices, and may be even more so in future. Here’s why.

    I see two trends at Apple (Caveat Emptor: this is a layman’s opinion). Indeed, I’d say that these are more than trends, but two major revolutions. The first has been a steady but substantial demographic transition in the user base. The current user base is fundamentally distinct, in both demand and practice, from that of the 1990’s and early Naughties (2000’s). Taking the entire universe of Apple clients, the overwhelming majority are iOS users and not macOS users. That said, I’d venture that the video/graphics professional sector comprises substantially less than 1% of that universe. Indeed, with the halo effect that has seen increased adoption of the Mac platform, I’d argue that this sector may even less than 1% of current macOS users. In the 1990’s, perhaps this sector was important for inspiring adoption of Apple products, however we now have retail stores and an arguable critical mass of users across all sectors, including science, medicine, law, architecture, agriculture, security and law enforcement and so on. Thus, modelled adoption is no longer as dependent on movie product placement as it once was, and may even be irrelevant. The technology is accessible and adoption is spurred by one’s own peers. Regarding the hardware, current MBPs have more processing power than many supercomputers of 30 years ago. In my field, what I cannot do on my MBP, I will probably not be able to do on a Mac Pro either, and will require university level resources. The old user base has been displaced by a newer one with different needs and demands. Apple’s cost/benefit ratio for addressing a single and dwindling niche like video editing may no longer be tenable let alone germane to the company’s future, which leads to the second trend or revolution.

    That second trend is a focus on AI and smart management of the user experience. Beyond the personal assistant, this is about smart management of device and platform performance, including workflow, memory, battery life, device interoperability, cloud-based back up and storage, security, information access and so on, that in many ways, has a multiplicative effect on the raw computational power, data storage and access needs of today’s users that exceed the big iron solutions of the 1990s. This AI-powered paradigm appears to be the future, in which Apple have as much at stake as any other tech company, whereas in enhanced legacy devices, that is, mechanical power, for a dedicated use case has diminishing returns, particularly if there are readily available options, like Linux boxes, out there that can address that need.

    This is no longer SJ’s Apple. That fact may be driven far more by exigency and industry trend than by any single CEO and senior management team. Chasing, indeed, leading those trends is essential for any company’s future, whereas if anything is a recipe for irrelevance and death, it is likely stubborn adherence to the past.

    In my view, suffering unrequited love from one’s preferred vendor is irrational. If anything, we’re witnessing a convergence of solutions, with variations on themes. I’d venture that the current environment has never been more amenable to experimentation and platform switching for users. If one vendor’s specific options do not address one’s needs, then find one that does, and be happy and productive.

  15. archimedes

    The Surface Studio seems like a better version of the Lenovo Ideacentre – which I’ve been a fan of for some time because of its large-format, adjustable multitouch display. For certain applications – drawing, music, tabletop games – it seems like a winner. Too bad it doesn’t run iOS. 🙂

  16. webjprgm

    Thank you wab95, someone needed to say that. Sometimes TMO becomes too much of an echo chamber for the same ideas and they’ve become rather depressing of late.

    I hope Apple knows what they are doing, though I am a little frustrated by some of the trends that I don’t find personally useful. (I like thin, but I still want USB ports rather than tons of adapters. Or include a couple adapters in the box to appease us.) I do think the Touch Bar is something that will spread to desktop Macs and is the start of a cool future in new interface interactions. I also think the vast majority of people I meet (professions) can do all they need on a laptop, including myself, if you just add a desktop monitor for convenience when needed. And it’s the direction I prefer, if you add in extra computing resources in the monitor/dock (GPU, drives, memory, etc.). But in any case, Apple still puts out high quality products so I’ll be hopeful they keep making things I can use. They still beat Windows for OS and the laptop hardware is still prettier than the competition.

    I also think Apple bottle-necks itself a little more than they need to. They could delegate Mac Pro updates to a team that doesn’t need any executive / Cook / Ive input to just update the internal specs each year. Really, why not? They can hire a bunch of people to do nothing but update and test these machines each year. But I don’t (yet) consider this problem to be the death of the company. Every company has some flaws.

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