Microsoft’s Two-Pronged Creativity Push

on October 27, 2016

Microsoft has been refining its identity and strategy since Satya Nadella took over as CEO, and much of that focus and strategy has been centered on productivity and helping people get things done. That vision has married well with Microsoft’s renewed emphasis on business products and services but it has also reinforced the sense that Microsoft doesn’t get consumers or, at least, the consumer halves of its users’ lives. Microsoft has needed a rallying point for a set of efforts around consumer use cases, and it appears to have decided on creativity as the catchphrase for this push, as demonstrated at Wednesday’s event in New York City.

A two-pronged strategy, not a single device

That creativity push has two main strands to it and it’s important to look at the totality of what Microsoft announced to see the full picture. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the hardware side of the announcements – the Surface Studio – as evidence this effort will be marginal but I think that misses the point. This new creativity emphasis includes both new creative tools within existing products like Windows and Office and new hardware in the form of the Surface Studio and the existing Surface product line. Microsoft seems determined to challenge Apple’s historic edge among professional creatives but it is also making a play for the creative element within a broad base of consumers and professionals.

Yes, the Studio is a high-end PC that’s going to be out of reach for the vast majority of consumers, most of whom will be left with traditional PCs that don’t have all the capabilities Microsoft showed off today. But the role of the Surface Studio is, arguably, to put a stake in the ground that says Microsoft is serious about serving the creative community, not to address the needs of its mainstream audience. However, by unveiling premium hardware that’s both beautiful and innovative, Microsoft is sending a broader message about its commitment to this space and to creativity more broadly.

Where most ordinary consumers will encounter Microsoft’s creativity push first is not in hardware but in software. Microsoft’s new Paint 3D app what looks like a GarageBand competitor called Groove Music Maker. Other enhancements in the new version of Windows 10 are more mainstream attempts to establish Microsoft as a creativity brand. Whereas the Surface Studio is a niche product, Microsoft now has over 400 million users of Windows 10 who will get the free Creators Update in the spring (or earlier, if they’re on the Windows Insider program). That’s a more mass-market strategy around creativity and has to be seen as part of the same concerted push to demonstrate leadership in this area.

Changing perceptions takes time

Though Wednesday’s announcements are a good start, it takes a long time to change deeply entrenched perceptions. Microsoft has its work cut out in trying to convince potential customers its products are more than just the workhorses they’ve always been for many. Workflows and cultures in many creative companies are built around Apple products and that won’t change overnight. However, Microsoft’s timing for these new products is great, coming at a time when Apple has been accused of neglecting its creative community. Apple, of course, has its own event on Thursday and will get an opportunity to make its case for its own vision of the future of computing.

It’s also easy to overestimate the role creative professionals play for Apple – though its Mac base was once heavily skewed towards these users, it’s long since broadened its appeal well beyond those users and well into the mainstream. Though losing creative professionals as a constituency might be painful for some at Apple, its mainstream appeal is what matters. It needs to shore that up with its announcements this week and beyond. In addition, Microsoft still largely relies on third-party developers to meet the needs of professional creators, whereas Apple does much more to meet those needs directly through products like Final Cut Pro and its add-ons, Logic Pro, and so on. Microsoft has Office for more generic work tasks but still doesn’t have a direct presence in the more creative fields specifically.

Lastly, the 3D enhancements to Paint and other apps were a mix of interesting and gimmicky. I’m not sure how many people are actually interested in creating 3D scenes of their trips to the beach but 3D animations in PowerPoint could enrich presentations in useful ways. The 3D push feels as much about finding a useful way to tie HoloLens into the consumer story as it is about creativity. Microsoft has put a lot of its next generation interface efforts into augmented reality with HoloLens but it has ended up with a product that’s far from mass market in nature. Its VR announcements on Wednesday are a concession to the reality that VR is where today’s mass market opportunities are, though Microsoft’s PC-centric push with $300-plus headsets will have a smaller addressable market than existing smartphone-centric solutions selling for around $100.

Cue Apple

Of course, now we all wait and see what Apple has in store Thursday. It obviously won’t respond directly to announcements made the day before but, as I wrote on Tuesday, it does need to demonstrate whether the next round of competition between Windows laptops and MacBooks will be defined by hardware performance advantages or by philosophical differences. Apple has been using the iPad lineup to meet many of the needs Microsoft has in its more PC-centric Surface products for Windows users, so it will be interesting how Apple sets its new MacBooks apart. Not only creative professionals but mainstream users have been waiting for updates to the MacBook Pro and either an update to or replacement for the MacBook Air. Apple’s event on Thursday will need to give them compelling reasons to upgrade to new devices rather than jumping ship to Windows.