Does Apple Love PCs More Than Microsoft?

on June 13, 2012

Does Apple, the post-PC company, have more faith in the future of PCs, than Microsoft?

Photo of Mac Book Pro
Mac Book Pro 15 with Retina Display

The idea may seem a stretch, seeing how Apple’s business is now dominated by iPhones and iPads, but it may well be true. Microsoft very much depends on the PC for its future, but it doesn’t seem to be serving its PC users well

Much of the analysis of Apple’s Worldwide  Developer Conference announcements has focused on the impact on Google. Dumping Google Maps from the iPhone and enhancing Siri search definitely pose some challenges for the search giant. But the larger near term impact may well be on Microsoft, as it struggles to hang onto its PC business while gaining traction in the elusive phone and tablet markets. Microsoft was having a hard enough time catching up with where Apple has been, but Apple, of course, is not standing still.

It’s significant that the new features of iOS 6.0 and OS X Mountain Lion, while impressive, are not earth-shaking. In the past five years, Apple has built a comprehensive infrastructure that ties all of its products together. This effort, while still evolving, has achieved considerable maturity, which is why we should expect that changes will be incremental. The lack of new features that knock your socks off may disappoint ardent fans and the markets, but it’s really a sign of how far Apple has come.

Keeping things separate. Microsoft maintains its dominance of the enterprise back office, but is struggling everywhere else against an upstart it though it had vanquished nearly 20 years ago. In the consumer space, it is betting pretty much everything on on Windows 8, I’ve made no secret of my belief that Microsoft’s decision to go with a common software platform for traditional PCs and tablets is a mistake. As Ryan Block of GDGT tweeted, there are a lot of former PC tasks now routinely handled by tablets, but “for the tasks that remain, computers are as important than ever. The user base isn’t contracting so much as the use cases are clarifying.”

Apple raised the stakes at WWDC as it revealed the refined features of Mountain Lion and iOS 6.0. Where Microsoft is merging the desktop with the tablet, Apple is continuing to converge the two. The difference is critical and, I believe, all in Apple’s favor. Apple is adding iOS-like features to OS X when they make sense. So Mountain Lion gets reminders, notifications, and messages. But it retains its distinctive look and feel and an environment that is optimized for the sorts of complicated tasks for which users will continue to rely on traditional PC hardware. In particular, the multi-windowed Mac desktop is retained along with the traditional icons, menus, and pointers. And while Apple has made it possible to manipulate the user interface through touchpad gestures, it shows no inclination to move to touch screens on either iMacs or MacBooks.

Microsoft, by contrast, is forcing Windows 8 users to deal with a Metro UI that seems to be optimized for tablets and touch screens. Metro apps are designed to run full screen, with some very limited screen sharing possible on larger displays. Metro actually looks like a very nice tablet UI, superior in some ways to both iOS and Android. But it find the Consumer Preview painful on a laptop. Even if you spend most of your time working in traditional Desktop apps, which continue to work in multiple windows as always, you are forced to put up with a jarring switch to Metro for some critical tasks. Metro apps feel like they waste an awful lot of space on a 13″ laptop and  are truly ridiculous on a 27″ desktop display. (Microsoft’s developers used to be criticized, only half in jest, for thinking that everyone worked, like them, with dual 30″ monitors. Now they seem to think that everyone works on a 10″ tablet.) I suspect that most serious PC users are going to want to stick with Windows 7 for as long as they can; it will be interesting to see if Microsoft will allow a downgrade option on new consumer systems.

Microsoft has made some progress integrating Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox and Windows 8 will push the process along. But again, Microsoft has not yet caught up to Apple even as the competition takes the next leap ahead. iCloud still has a ways to go and iTunes is a hairball, but you can  wake me when Windows matches the magic of PhotoStream.

Then there’s hardware. Spurred mainly by Intel, Microsoft’s OEM hardware partners are finally beginning to catch up with the notebook revolution set off by the Mac Book Air. But Apple, of course, is not going to sit still. The 15″ Retina Display MacBook Pro (a product that desperately needs a better name) is not likely to be a huge seller. Its starting price of $2,199 is two to three times that of a typical Windows notebook and it tops out at a staggering $3,700. But it sets a new standard an definitely shows the direction laptops will be taking.

In a typical Apple move, it dispenses with an optical drive, long thought to be an essential in a 15″ professional notebook. It is a third of an inch thinner an 1.3 pounds lighter than Hewlett-Packard’s Envy 15. Its most important feature is a 2,880×1,800 pixel display; Windows competitors top out at 1,920×1,080, less than half the pixel density. And make no mistake about it: Apple will be pushing Retina displays throughout the MacBook line. They are expensive, but they justify charging prices that generate fat margins and let Apple capture a vastly disproportionate share of PC profits. And, have been proven with the new iPad, they produce a far superior user experience simply by making everything more legible. In the year or so since Intel introduced the Ultrabook concept, Windows machines are arguably losing ground to the company that supposedly wants to kill the PC.

Microsoft was caught seriously off-guard by the iPad and was right to shift massive resources into tablets when it became clear that the post-PC phenomenon was real. But PCs remain a very important part of the ecosystem, and right now, it’s not clear that Microsoft cares as much about them as Apple does.

Afterthought:  If this report from VR-zone is correct and Microsoft plans to charge manufacturers $85 or so for each copy of the tablet version of Windows, it is going to be almost impossible for these devices to come to market at a competitive price. I hope it is wrong, because if true–and Microsoft has not responded to the report–it will leave Microsoft with an OS optimized for tablets no one will want