Microsoft’s Two-Pronged Creativity Push

Jan Dawson / October 27th, 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.

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • klahanas

    “Yes, the Studio is a high-end PC that’s going to be out of reach for the vast majority of consumers, ”

    Worse!
    $3K for an i5? Ridiculous, offensive, and a non-starter. There is competition within the Windows market.

    • Space Gorilla

      You’re not buying an i5, that’s the first thing you have to understand. The Surface Studio would replace a Cintiq 27QHD, which is about $2,500 and requires a PC in addition to that. For you, the Surface Studio seems like a rip off, but for the segment that would buy it, it’s similar in price to their current set ups, and offers a better experience (at least according to one professional illustrator who used it).

      • klahanas

        But it’s being presented to the general public, not the illustrator trade.

        So I’ll rephrase…
        Don’t buy it if your not an illustrator. As a PC, you’re being ripped off.

        • Space Gorilla

          Every product does not and should not meet all needs, the “general public” as you say. I understand completely that you are looking for a product that does cover the most needs for the least money. But that’s just you. Others are not seeking the same thing, and they are not dumb or morally inferior because they do not seek what you deem morally superior. They are simply humans that do not want the same things that you want. I can’t waste time on another conversation about simple human decency and respect. I won’t be replying to you, and I doubt anyone else will either (or have you not noticed that).

          • klahanas

            Still a ripoff. The buyer gets a better value with an i7 regardless. It should be the starting point at that price.

        • Shameer Mulji

          Here in Canada the Studio will start at $4000 given current exchange rates. At that price, doesn’t even enter the thought process. Hell, the new Surface Book Performance model starts at $3,200

          • klahanas

            By any measure, even if suitable for the job, that’s a lot of money. It’s insulting when it’s underspec’ed.

            I’m more forgiving on technical hurdles, very unforgiving on policy hurdles (matters of ownership ). So the laptop I understand better than the deaktop.

        • Glaurung-Quena

          “But it’s being presented to the general public, not the illustrator trade.”

          If you watch MS’s event video, the speaker says it is for “creators and professionals”. If you watch MS’s trailer for the device, it shows an artist using it for drawing, and only as an afterthought shows a fast series of screenshots of other, non-drawing apps. The tagline at the end of the trailer is “turn your desk into a studio.”

          So how exactly is it being presented as something for the general public?

          • klahanas

            Because it’s being published in the general tech press, with general tech press writers and editors in attendance.

          • Shameer Mulji

            “If you watch MS’s event video, the speaker says it is for “creators and professionals”

            To be more precise, per MS’ keynote, the Studio focuses on creators tomorrow (3D / AR / VR creation). That’s not to say you can’t do other forms of creation but that’s not it’s intended mission. It’s about creating new things.

    • jfutral

      What do you think you get from an i7 vs an i5? It isn’t speed since hz vs hz they are comparable.

      (to help you)
      http://www.extremetech.com/computing/210703-intel-core-i5-vs-core-i7-which-processor-should-you-buy

      Joe

      • klahanas

        To help you back…

        http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2404674,00.asp

        It’s the “lower” end CPU.

        i7 has deeper cache’s, hyperthreading across the board, more cores available. Heck, at that price, since it’s an all in one, I would expect at minimum a hexacore. Their profits are not my concern in any positive way for them.

        Someone just asked me whether they should get one, I told them the higher end models are less overpriced than the base model. $3K for an i5 is just wrong and should be discouraged.

        What would be nice is a monitor without the PC parts, so I can add any PC of my choosing. At, say, $1,500.

        When I pay Lambo prices, I will not be happy with a 1.6 liter four cylinder engine, that I probably can’t swap out.

        • jfutral

          First, that’s over a year old article. That’s why I tried to point you to one that’s more current with the newest designs overviewed.

          I think “lower-end” also is a subjective undermining of what the i5 offers.

          What really matter is not simply the i5 or i7 designation. What matters is _which_ i5 or i7. There are certain i5’s that out perform certain i7s.

          Hyperthreading will always depend on which software and most people, including power users, don’t use anything that takes advantage of what the i7 offers.

          So, if you are only driving intown, it doesn’t really matter whether it is a 2.5 liter or 1.6 liter four or six cylinder.

          Joe

          • klahanas

            IMO if I’m paying Lamborghini prices, I better be getting a 750 hp 12 cylinder, even if I’m just picking up groceries.

            That the article is a year old doesn’t change the differences between these cpus, especially as I described tbem.

          • jfutral

            Actually the over year old article is quite outdated, especially as you described them.

            You’re not buying either a Lamborghini nor paying Lamborghini prices. Considering everything the price includes, maybe 535i prices. As such that’s about right.

            Joe

          • klahanas

            Joe,
            You have every right to spend as you see fit. Based on what desktop computers cost, without the screen, no computer with an i5 should cost more than $500 to $800. And those are upgradable too.

            Laptops about $800 to $1000.

            If you’re only driving intown…
            Lambo guarantees, among other things, a certain very high level of performance. If you choose to only use a fraction of it, that’s your business, but that doesn’t define the Lambo. Among other things, it’s price and performance do.

            But to adjust my analogy more to gour liking, the 535i is more of a quad core i7, the Lambo a 20 core Xeon. i5 is more of a Ford thing…

            Don’t pay Lambo prices for Ford parts, if you can help it. 🙂

            Various edits.

          • jfutral

            If you bought a Lamborghini for everyday, intown driving, your purchase has nothing to do with how a Lamborghini can perform. It’s purely for bragging rights. Not just that you can buy it, but you can afford the upkeep the added wear and tear of everyday intown driving beats out of a car.

            Same with an i7 in a computer that you will never put through its paces, but will have to constantly throttle down to keep from overheating. The lower power i5, since it doesn’t have that problem, will out perform the i7.

            It’s all about application, which I think both articles make quite clear.

            I would put the i5 as a 3 series. A great pocket rocket. The i3, maybe a Ford Taurus (except for the ones used in RoboCop, which were fierce).

            Joe

          • klahanas

            We don’t disagree much, except over the value of $3K.

  • For me, the question is not HOW Microsoft is pushing on Creativity, but WHY. Why is Microsoft putting so much effort into a small niche segment of a declining market?

    As described in the article, Apple used to depend heavily on the creative segment to the point that the “Think Different” campaign was clearly directed towards these users (“We make tools for these kind of people”). However, this is not the situation today. In 1997 it made sound strategic sense for Apple to focus on this segment, as much it makes sound strategic sense to defocus on this segment today. http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/tech-sanity-check/video-steve-jobs-narrating-heres-to-the-crazy-ones-tribute/

    So why is Microsoft focusing on this segment today? Or to put it another way, what happened to Microsoft’s mobile strategy? Why aren’t they focusing on this?

    I see Microsoft’s focus on the Creative segment as a direct result of not being able to do anything significant in mobile. It is the result of trying to do something cool with PCs, but not having the ability to leverage the growth in mobile.

    Importantly, Windows’ new Paint 3D app is a UWP app, meaning that it’s more a table app than a PC app. There’s absolutely no reason why Apple or Adobe couldn’t makes something similar for the iPad. http://www.theverge.com/2016/10/10/13225094/microsoft-paint-windows-10-app-leak-hands-on

    So 3 hours before Apple’s event, I conclude that it is wrong to expect Apple to do something similar targeting creative users. There is no strategic imperative for Apple to match Microsoft. Apple is much better positioned to leverage mobile, and this is what they should be focusing on.

    • Shameer Mulji

      Ben Thompson shares your sentiments

      https://stratechery.com/2016/surface-studio-nintendo-switch-and-the-potential-of-niche/

      As an aside, Apple was granted a patent for something similar in 2010:

      http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2010/08/the-mother-lode-welcome-to-the-imac-touch.html

      Although the patent says iMac Touch, I still think the patent could materialize but coming from the iPad side: think 27″ iPad Pro, custom Apple ARM SoC, iOS (albeit a more desktop-capable version)

      • I’m not sure that making a 27-inch iPad makes sense. For me, it makes much more sense to approach this from the Mac side because you will want a multi-window interface. As far as I understand it, a multi-window, multi-document interface is quite a departure from how current iOS apps are designed, and I don’t expect iOS developers to optimise for 27-inch screens.

        And besides, if there were any device for which Steve Job’s “truck” metaphor was more appropriate, the Surface Studio would be it. The Surface Studio is the perfect manifestation of a “truck”.

        • Shameer Mulji

          “As far as I understand it, a multi-window, multi-document interface is quite a departure from how current iOS apps are designed,”

          For now, yes.

          Don’t consider a desktop-size iPad as a truck…consider it more of a crossover / suv

          • I think it would be better to define what is a truck and what isn’t, by the target market size and coverage of use cases.

            If it only targets a small segment of creative professionals, then it’s a truck. Even if it’s an iPad.

    • longboard

      “Or to put it another way, what happened to Microsoft’s mobile strategy? Why aren’t they focusing on that?”

      I thought MS abandoned mobile and focused on cloud and services awhile back?

      I have the feeling the new product is a pat on the back for bringing their big table concept to the desktop. Maybe MS has no intention of selling significant amounts, just enough to prove an idea.

      • Depends on if you include tablets into mobile. They haven’t given up on tablets yet.

        And if the purpose of the Surface Studio is to just prove an idea, then they’re in worse shape than I thought.

        Either way though, there’s no need for Apple to follow, and as I write this after Apple’s event, it’s clear that they didn’t.

        • Space Gorilla

          Yes, as already pointed out in the comments, Apple has had a patent on a touch iMac that angles down like a drafting table, since 2010. They might even have a working prototype. Perhaps Apple is simply waiting on the market, or perhaps they will never release a touch iMac.

    • jfutral

      I think the “why” has to do with the current buzz about creativity in the work place. Everyone is touting how businesses need creativity to compete today (even a simple scroll down the articles at Medium should illustrate that point), never mind that few businesses are actually willing to open up to what that means.

      In an environment where creativity is imbued by a certificate that says someone completed “creativity training” (reference the article I linked to under Carolina’s post), why not also buy computers for the workforce that should also imbue, by association, creativity? Plus it isn’t a Mac, so IT is happy.

      Joe

    • obarthelemy

      Maybe the deeper thinking is that mid/long term, full PCs will be for tasks that require complex inputs, the rest will be handled by (maybe docked) phones/tablets/laptops ?

      • That doesn’t change the situation that creative PCs are a small niche segment of a declining market?

  • Space Gorilla

    The Surface Studio looks amazing. There’s a review from an illustrator who used it for a week or so and he describes it as a generational leap forward compared to the 27 inch Cintiq he uses now. I’ve always wanted a huge touchscreen in a draft table form. That said, it is targeting a fairly small segment. I also wonder if we’re at a point in computing tech where this kind of experience can be decoupled and made more portable. Are we that far away from very large screen iPads or 5K touchscreens powered by a variety of other devices?

    • Shameer Mulji

      “Are we that far away from very large screen iPads”

      As I’ve mentioned above, I don’t think we are.

      • Space Gorilla

        That approach also fits with what I call the Apple Network of Things. I think we’re also not that far away from a kind of modular computing model, where we can use many devices and screens together as needed. So why couldn’t one of those be a 27 inch touchscreen which is highly portable? I love the drafting table idea of the Surface Studio, but that experience could be delivered without the device being an all-in-one iMac-style desktop computer.

        That said, Apple probably already has a working prototype of the touch iMac from their 2010 patent, which works much like the Surface Studio. But that type of device is not highly portable and Apple likes mobility when it comes to devices. All this to say I really have no idea what Apple is going to do in this area. I’d bet against the touch iMac, even though I would personally love that.

        • Shameer Mulji

          ” I’d bet against the touch iMac, even though I would personally love that.”

          I bet against a touch iMac for the simple reason that I’m of the mindset that iOS / ARM / touch / Pencil computing the future of Apple. That’s not to say that the Mac is dead, just that that’s not where things are heading. With that theory, that’s why I think a 27″ version of the iPad Pro makes the most sense.

          • Space Gorilla

            That makes sense, any touch iMac would really be an iPad Studio, and made into a more portable form. I would guess the maturation of iOS is the main hurdle at this point. But with every iteration iOS becomes more powerful and capable. Perhaps we’ll have a 17 inch iPad Studio within a few years, and larger sizes after that.

          • Shameer Mulji

            “I would guess the maturation of iOS is the main hurdle at this point. ”

            Absolutely.

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