There’s an odd little irony to Microsoft’s unveiling of its new Surface Studio computer in the week its long-time rival Apple announcement of its first annual decline in sales and profit in 15 years.
It was the same week Apple launched its latest laptop range, the MacBook Pro, which was welcomed and panned in seeming equal parts. One commentator’s remark that “Apple just told the world it has no idea who the Mac is for” seems cannily obvious when you compare the new MacBook Pro to the old, and note that it has taken four years to update the laptop. It’s a remarkable turn of events that the maker of the computers beloved by designers and the media industry should seem to be out-of-touch.
The most innovative thing in the new MacBook Pro range wasn’t its USB Type-C port (which Apple originally introduced with last year’s ultra-slim MacBook and now calls Thunderbolt 3) but this touch-sensitive strip at the top of the keyboard that adjusts what it displays depending on what app you’re using, including emoji. Yes, four years to make it easier to put a “tears of joy” into your email.
On the other hand, the Surface Studio is being heaped with praise for reinventing how the computer might be. With the bulk of its hardware in its base, the ultrathin 38-inch touch-sensitive monitor can swivel into multiple positions. The beautifully styled Surface Studio, also an all-in-one device like the comparable iMac, has a clever hinge and a touch screen, dial adaptor and stylus.
It seems remarkable that the perception tide has turned in both instances. It’s now Microsoft being praised for great design and for making sexy hardware, while Apple is being pilloried for staid design and lack of innovation – with both the iPhone 7 using the industrial design of the 6S and for the MacBook Pro’s lack of really impressive new features.
After years as the media and consumer darling, Apple has increasingly been under a barrage of criticism for lagging in design, cumbersome software, and in general not being as slick and as dependable under Steve Jobs. The past two quarters fall in iPhone sales – this quarter was down 5% year-on-year to a still impressive 45.5m handsets – have inspired no end of Schadenfreude.
It’s a fascinating reversal, albeit Apple is still worth US$622bn and is the most valuable company in the world. The two early pioneers of the desktop computer (PC) revolution went in widely divergent paths: Microsoft focussed on software and went on to become the largest software maker in the world, giving it a monopoly it still has in desktop operating systems and making its founder Bill Gates the richest man in the world.
Apple’s combination of hardware and software produced the first PC in the Macintosh but went through that notorious slump until the second coming of founder Steve Jobs. The company’s share price has defied gravity in an unprecedented 15-year-run of growth that saw Job’s highly focussed and style optimising gadgets become the global must-have devices.
In the meantime CEO Satya Nadella has gone about remaking Microsoft for a new era, pushing a cloud-first, mobile-first strategy that has resulted in it becoming the second-largest cloud service provider after Amazon. The outrageously overpriced US$26bn purchase of LinkedIn notwithstanding, this latest hardware offering is another strong sign that Nadella has found a new path for Microsoft to follow into a possible next act in the future software world.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail