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Has Microsoft become more innovative than Apple?

The new Surface Studio is an amazing machine that is targeted at ‘creatives’ - Apple’s long time core audience. The new MacBook Pro was an expected upgrade to the venerable portable line for ‘creatives’, but the new OLED Touch Strip seems like a gimmick. Has Apple lost its way?

If you read through my past blog posts, you will quickly see that I am no Microsoft apologist. My feelings toward the Redmond giant have wavered between indifference and hate for most of my computing life. Just about every gadget I own is from Apple, with the exception of a few Chrome devices. Something happened though, when Satya Nadella took over the reigns at Microsoft, and a slow evolution toward a cloud-centric existence seems to have turned the company around from the disaster that was Steve Ballmer. This past week, the two tech titans released new products aimed at the same audience, and I was forced to ask myself “has Microsoft become more innovative than Apple?”

Let’s start with the Apple announcement. Apple has finally released a new MacBook Pro line (not a word on the Mac Pro Desktop), the portable targeted at their core audience of creatives. Intended for powerful portable computing for tasks such as photo, video and sound editing. Apple showed off the power of the new USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as new stand-alone monitors from LG. The newest innovation for Apple’s highest-end laptops came in the form of an OLED Touch Strip, which takes the space of the traditional function keys, above the number row on most keyboards. It shows interactive buttons that are context-native to whatever application or task you are working on, as well as having a Touch ID sensor for securely unlocking your Mac by fingerprint or using Apple Pay. Admittedly this is by far my favorite feature after having Touch ID for so long on my iOS devices. The new MacBook Pro is thinner, lighter, and more powerful than its predecessor, while having more battery life as well. The processor options are amenable to most creatives, but the upper limit on memory (RAM) seems to be a bit low for most creatives - at 16GB. All in all, the new MacBook Pro is an amazing product for the mobile creative professional.

The one key product that was not mentioned in the Apple event was the Mac Pro desktop. Now at 3 years old, it was expected to have a refresh, as this is the workstation for the consummate creative professional - more powerful than any laptop can ever be. Perhaps Apple is waiting on the new Kaby Lake processors (expected H1 2017) from Intel to make a refresh more meaningful, but it has left many creatives feeling as if Apple has left them behind in pursuit of a more lucrative and expansive mobile market. 

One company, however, seems to have made a play at this target market segment, just as Apple dropped the ball. Microsoft released its first ever desktop computer, called the Surface Studio, and this beautiful machine is exactly what a creative individual will want, assuming they can stomach using the Windows operating system. Microsoft went a step further to announce that the next major release version of Windows 10 will be called the “Creators Update.” It will be released for free this spring.

The hardware on this new machine is quite simply amazing. It has a 28” 4500x3000 touch-sensitive display, Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, up to 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GPU and up to 32GB RAM (admittedly half of the 64GB a current Mac Pro can hold). It has two hybrid drive options that offer 1TB or 2TB of hard drive space to work in. It has a plethora of ports to connect external devices, and the display works with the Surface Pen (for drawing and note taking). Lastly, though not part of the Surface Studio bundle but available separately, the Surface Dial is an amazing addition to the creator’s tool arsenal. It allows you to access tool menus in a new way, with radial display of menu options, allowing you to simply turn the dial to the selected option. One can’t do this tool justice in text, so you should absolutely check out the videos Microsoft has made available on the Surface Dial info page. I feel like this machine is something Apple would have (should have) designed, not something Microsoft would. It was odd yet impressive to see Microsoft make such a huge entry into the desktop space, especially one so targeted at Apple’s core audience. 

One thing to keep in mind is the traditional replacement cycle for most personal computers. In the enterprise, it is typically 3 years, though some enterprises will extend to 5 years when there are budget constraints or when they adopt a web-portal driven software base. We as consumers do not need new computers every year, nor has it been the norm to replace them every year. I, as a power user, typically replace my machines every 2-3 years, though I do have some older Macs that are approaching 5 years old. The build quality on Apple’s products allows them to remain fully functional and relevant long past the 3 year mark. That being said, if we consider the 3 year mark to be the average refresh cycle, the Mac Pro has passed that mark, and should have been updated. 

Product release cycles for most items that are not mobile phones have slowed down significantly as people are able to use their devices for longer. Even iPad has shown a drastic slowdown in sales as the market has flooded and some of the oldest versions of iPad are still running just fine. The PC market overall is shrinking, and this trend will only accelerate as two major trends continue: 1. Most computing is being done on mobile devices as opposed to traditional desktop and laptop PCs. 2. Many businesses, tired of the cost of owning and managing so many desktops and laptops are moving towards web-portal-driven applications, allowing them to primarily use mobile devices and thin-client “desktops.” As such, it is no surprise that Apple’s own product cycles (the iPhone notwithstanding) will slow down as well.

So, has Apple lost its way? Has Microsoft become more innovative than Apple? It’s hard to say. While I have been underwhelmed by most of Apple’s product releases in the desktop and laptop space for the last few years, I do understand that Apple’s main business today is iPhones. As such, this is where they need to put most of their efforts and money. They must continue to innovate in this key area, in order to keep increasing market share, revenue and profit. At the same time Apple needs to be really careful in how they address their desktop and laptop consumers. For the average consumer, I believe that what Apple is doing is just fine. Again, most people will not replace their desktop or laptop sooner than every 3 years unless it breaks or is damaged prematurely. Likewise, most people will often stay with a machine as long as reasonably possible, so long as it suits their needs, in order to remain fiscally responsible. 

For the power user, the pro and creatives, however, Apple seems to be slipping. Counting myself among this group, I do love to see new, innovative machines as much as the next person, but more importantly, I expect to see a methodical, rhythmic release schedule for these products. For several years now, Apple has gradually transitioned their laptop and desktop machines from ‘user serviceable’ to ‘appliances’, meaning that the user can no longer fix or upgrade components in Apple’s desktop and laptop products. The machine has essentially become an appliance, in which the only way to upgrade is to buy a newer better machine. Because Apple has chosen to go this route, to the chagrin of many, they have implicitly created and accepted the responsibility to provide the upgrade paths that their user base requires. If I buy a new iMac, Mac Pro or MacBook, knowing I cannot upgrade anything inside of them, I expect that Apple will release upgraded versions of these machines, on a regular cadence, so that I can upgrade or replace them when needed. They have dropped the ball completely with Mac Pro, almost completely with the Mac Mini, and somewhat with the new MacBook Pro models. 

It is hard for me as an Apple consumer to decide what I should replace my current MacBook Air with. While Apple did not say that they are doing away with the MacBook Air line, they also did not mention it other than to show how much thinner and lighter their new MacBook Pros are than the current Air. It’s almost as if Apple wants to keep the regular MacBook as the low end product, then have a user step up to a MacBook Pro with no Touch Bar as a MacBook Air replacement, and finally, the MacBook Pros with Touch Bars for the power users and pros. From a strictly product placement vision, this seems solid. It does not, however, fit from a cost perspective. The current MacBook and MacBook Pro without Touch Bar are too expensive to take up the low end of the product line and serve the same purpose the current MacBook Airs did - low cost entry point to the line. Apple really needs to fix this in the next release or two. In order to function in both capacities (product placement and cost differentiation) we need to see a sub $1000 MacBook, a close to $1000 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar, and more expensive MacBook Pro models.

While the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pros is an innovation in and of itself, the overall machine does not come off as an innovation. This is perfectly OK if you are simply releasing an incremental upgrade to an existing line. For a long awaited re-design of an entire line, however, I feel that we need more. Microsoft has absolutely not out-innovated Apple in the mobile market when comparing the MacBook Pro line against Microsoft’s own Surface Book. The surface book had so many power and heat issues, along with so many unfulfilled promises in the capability of the machine. 

The Surface Pro, however, is one area where Microsoft has pushed the boundaries of two separate devices and tried to meld them into one. This was truly an innovative move, prior to Apple’s release of iPad Pros with keyboards, and the only fault I have found with regular use of my Surface Pro 3 is the absolutely crappy keyboard. Some feel that the keyboard for the Surface Pro 4 is much better, but the keyboard on the Surface Pro 3 is absolute garbage. I haven’t bothered to try and test the Surface Pro 4 keyboard on my Surface Pro 3, but if someone in Redmond is reading this, I would happily test one out and report my findings. 

In the desktop space, the race is much closer. Apple definitely innovated in the design of the Mac Pro, but then dropped the ball after leaving it to stagnate for 3 years. The iMac has continued to get new innovative designs and features, but the new Surface Studio has surpassed it in just about every respect. It is the product that Apple should have designed, but they cannot because they do not believe in a touch-centric PC operating system. It looks like Microsoft has taken the lead here in innovation, and I am not sure that Apple has the willingness to challenge them on this front. Since the PC market is shrinking every year, this may not be a huge deal in terms of revenue and market share, but it is a huge deal in perception among the pros and creators out there. I have been in the market for a new desktop for a few months now, and while I was originally waiting for the new release of the Mac Mini (I prefer to keep my desktop and monitor separate and modular), I am not seriously considering the new Surface Studio. That is the level of innovation that Microsoft has shown here. While I vastly prefer OSX (now MacOS) to Windows 10, I am equally at home with either. If Apple does not release a serious upgrade to the Mini in the next 6 months, with a new quad-core processor option, I will likely look elsewhere. 

Overall, I believe that the innovation score is a dead heat at this point between Apple and Microsoft. This says a lot more about the new direction Microsoft has taken since the amazing Satya Nadella took over, than it does about Apple’s lack of innovation. Always the Apple fan, even I am starting to become concerned that Apple is struggling to innovate in a post-Steve Jobs world. The next 6 to 12 months will tell a bigger story about how these two tech titans will fare in the innovation department moving forward. This must all be taken into perspective, however, with respect to the overall state of innovation at both companies. Apple continues to dominate the innovate the space in mobile phones and tablets, and Microsoft threw the towel in with Nokia. Apple continues to release software of higher quality (for free), across the board, than Microsoft, but Apple has also slipped a few times with regards to their software stability. Microsoft is, thus far, out-innovating Apple in terms of cloud services and software, but Apple is making strides to catch up, At this point, Apple still holds the lead in overall innovation, but Microsoft is making a strong run to catch up.

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