Reflections from a Day with Microsoft and a Day with Apple

Getting Thing Done vs. Doing New Things – by Ben Bajarin

My friend Benedict Evans had a great post a while back where he outlined how, when a technology is toward the end of its cycle, it tends to be at its best. This sticks in my mind as I reflect on the last few days with both Microsoft and Apple releasing some of the best PCs we have seen in some time. In fact, if you look at the modern PC lineup from all major PC OEMs overall, they are they best we have ever been.

This makes sense for a category over 30 years old. By now, we know exactly what people do with these devices and are able to focus innovations in hardware and software on the tried and true behaviors of PC users. Here again, Steve Jobs’ metaphor of the PC being a truck is proving true. When you look at the modern innovations of trucks — how much they tow, innovations in the truck bed for more durability and heavier loads, the lowering of the tailgate with a gesture, etc. — they are optimized for workflows of a very specific type of worker. This is exactly what we are seeing with the PC category.

The focus of all hardware and software in the PC category is not about doing new things. It’s about doing the things we need to do even better. There is a hyper-optimization trend for the specialized user who values things like a full tough screened all-in-one computer, or pen input, or a TouchBar. But we must not forget this is a very small segment while also a valuable one. It makes perfect sense for Apple and Microsoft to focus their innovations in hardware for a group who values it. This, again, is exactly how trucks are made and why trucks are not cheap.

We are expanding our tools for computing so that we are now in a space where the type of job you have will dictate the type of tool (PC) you use. This reminds me of hammers. I have a hammer. It is a very basic hammer and, as far as hammers go, there is nothing special about it. My brother-in-law, who is a carpenter, has a different kind of hammer. His hammer is specialized to the task he does every day and makes his life easier. He has a framing hammer which has a longer, curved handle, larger head, better weight distribution to drive framing nails into studs with less effort, yet innovations in wood, carbon, and steel make it lighter than my hammer. It also costs $100. He hammers nails every day and I hammer maybe once a month. Hence, I’m not spending $100 on hammer. Yet, while he could get away with using my hammer in his day job, he uses a tool better suited for the task. This is exactly what we have now in the PC category.

When you hammer nails all day, you look at framing hammer features and functions and can see why they are valuable to you. You are self-aware of your pain points and what products have features which speak to you and help you do your job better.

Looking back, competition is what got us here. It was Microsoft’s desire to respond to the competition of the iPad that led them down the path of an ecosystem of touch-based PCs in the market today of all shapes and sizes. I’d argue it was competition from touch-based PCs which led Apple to the TouchBar. All desktops and notebooks used to look the same in form and function but now we have a diversity of the portfolio, each focusing on a piece of the pie instead of the whole pie itself. This is good for everyone who needs a PC on a daily basis to get stuff done.

From a hardware standpoint, what I found interesting was how the difference in philosophy between desktops and notebooks and between Apple and Microsoft have led the Mac to be on an island all by itself. No touch screen, but TouchBar. Which, in my mind, means the iPad Pro is what is actually competing with Windows PCs and tablets that are pushing touch experiences and software as a part of their work flow. If consumers compare the tools this way, I think things may get very interesting from a sales perspective.

Now, thinking about the future. Everything from this week is about getting things done, not doing new things. The big question facing the industry is, what’s next? Inevitably, letting humans do things not possible before with any previous tool is part of what is next. My gut says it is something in the AR/VR/AI spaces. This is where Microsoft’s announcement around Windows that the upcoming release will support Windows holographic VR and AR experiences is interesting. Arguably, by the end of next year, Microsoft could have well north of 400 million PCs in the market capable of having an AR/VR experience with hardware built on the Windows Holographic platform which can start as low as $299. As software developers start enabling humans to do new things, then we are breaking new ground. This is exciting and the next decade is going to be very interesting but the PC, as we know it, is nearing its end. Parts of the old will still linger in the new but it will be all the new things made possible with the latest tools that will lead us to look back at PCs of old and reminisce.

What Was at Stake this Week for Microsoft and Apple? – by Carolina Milanesi

Ben focused on the touch approach of these two companies and the impact of what was announced this week might have on the market. I would like to take a moment to talk about how different these two events were as far as the impact they will have on the two brands.

For Microsoft, we were at their device event yet we were asked to imagine what we could do with Windows 10 and with the Creators edition in particular. It took almost an hour to get to the new devices in Microsoft’s attempt to continue to balance a platform for all the partners and their own portfolio of devices. Overall, however, the day did a lot to lift the Microsoft brand and Windows ecosystem.

Paint 3D and the whole focus on bringing 3D to the masses; People, the new app that puts people at the center of your communication flow; HoloLens in B2B and B2C — all point to a Microsoft really focusing on setting the foundations for the next era of computing and investing in becoming the go-to brand for the next generation. As I mentioned on Twitter during the event, it is so refreshing to see Microsoft looking ahead to the next generation of users without letting the current users drag them down and limit their possibilities.

Surface is the best showcase for that next vision. A vision that started with Panos Panay’s team rethinking the PC in 2012. A vision that, while from a hardware perspective required a few iterations, it was one others within the Windows ecosystem as well as Apple and Google validated by launching similar products. What we saw yesterday however, is even more powerful than the first Surface as software, apps and hardware really came together with the Surface Studio to an extent we have not seen before. Validating Steve Job’s vision: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

So let’s forget about the fact the Surface Studio might not be for everyone because of pricing and the focus on drawing/sketching. Let’s focus on the excitement the device is bringing to the Microsoft brand and Surface by drawing people into stores. Let’s look at the impact the Surface Dial might have in having developers think of how to take advantage of it. Finally, let’s think of the people that might end up considering a Surface Pro because of Surface Studio.

At Apple, the story was different. Apple did not need to re-energize its brand. Nor did it have to show they can deliver a piece of hardware very much in tune with its software. Apple needed to deliver a new MacBook Pro many have been waiting for. Apple could have easily followed the trend and delivered a touch-screen enabled MacBook Pro – at the end of the day they said they would never do a pen for the iPad until they did a pencil. Instead, they remained true to their idea that, when you have a keyboard, touch should be close to where you fingers are most of the time — is close to the keys, not the screen. So the MacBook Pro gets the Touch Bar. Apple reinvents the MacBook Pro, not its brand or its vision.

As I looked at the Touch Bar, I started thinking about how iPad Apple reinvented Mobile Internet Devices and Tablet PCs by focusing on apps and building on the ecosystem they created for the iPhone. Through apps, we did things differently. The Touch Bar has the potential to do the same for the MacBook Pro. Touching something with my finger in the same way as I would do with my mouse does not necessarily change my workflow. But we saw today how Photoshop and Final Cut Pro took advantage of the bar to perform common editing tasks differently. This is the power the Apple ecosystem has over Windows. While the Mac app store has not been as vibrant as the iOS one, the Touch Bar might ignite more interest, especially as the MacBook Pro is now clearly positioned as a higher-end device with users that are prepared to invest more in their tools both for work and play.

Apple also had to explain where the MacBook Pro and the iPad Pro sit and, although the rationalization of the story here might be a little more difficult to follow, I believe it boils down to one thing: Apple offers choices. Their computing offering spreads from the iPad Pro 9.7″ all the way to the MacBook Pro 15”. This explains the pricing we saw today – aside from the fact Apple might also want to make a statement this was not a simple refresh.

Two school of thoughts on touch, no right or wrong. Two brands that, despite their differences, have done a lot this week to show that the PC market still has innovation and, while sales will not bounce back overnight, we might see much more engaged users going forward.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

14 thoughts on “Reflections from a Day with Microsoft and a Day with Apple”

  1. What rolls my eyes about the cars/truck analogy is that it focuses on the capacity aspects but completely neglects that in computing, it’s the trucks that outrun AND outcorner the cars. In fact, it’s the trucks that fuel (program) the cars.

    1. Unless I mis-understand you, the statement misses the point of the truck analogy. Simply, its specialized.. That’s the point of the analogy and that alone.. Hence I threw the hammer example in as well.

      1. Quite the opposite. This truck will do all jobs better. It’s faster, more nimble when running, carrie more cargo, and runs all routes. This is broader, less specialized.

        The car is more convenient because it fits in more parking spaces (your pocket).

        So all this Post PC, is really about Pocket Computer. Which is fantastic, but it’s not a PC. It does a subset of jobs adequately enough.

        1. It overserves the mainstream needs, that is the point. It’s designed for specialized needs. It actually fits totally inline with the jobs to be done theory as a specialized product not a general purpose one like you are saying.

          Either way if you don’t like that one then use my hammer one. 🙂

          1. Then I’ll just need to stay stuck. To me broad is the more general, and narrow is the subset of mainstream.

            I like your hammer analogy, if the carpenter’s hammer is better and serves more purposes, then it’s the general purpose instrument. He may also have other hammers for specific purposes, such as shingles. That is a special purpose instrument.

            And it’s not you I’m picking on, except for defending Jobs’ analogy.

            PS: Overserving is far preferred over underserving or not serving.

  2. “Arguably, by the end of next year, Microsoft could have well north of 400 million PCs in the market capable of having an AR/VR experience with hardware built on the Windows Holographic platform which can start as low as $299.”

    On the one hand, it’s great to see prices of VR headsets come down in price but as you’ve mentioned before in your articles / tweets, I really don’t think they go mainstream until VR / AR headsets can be used independently: IOW, not having to tether to your PC.

    1. agree, but I can see a lot try it first with this approach. Also, from a developer viewpoint, much larger potential base at first.

  3. “The big question facing the industry is, what’s next?”

    A question that reflects the emotional immaturity and congenital ADHD of the tech industry. Do hammer or screwdriver manufacturers ask “what’s next”? After a generation of experimentation and incremental improvements in PC design, we are finally making computers that work reasonably well and have fixed most of their glaring inadequacies. We can now build computational tools to fulfill the specific needs of every person or business who needs them.

    Tech is now where the motor vehicle industry stood in 1930 at the end of the Model T era — its teething problems sorted, with a clear knowledge of the basics of motor vehicle design, ready to start building different kinds of vehicles tailored to the needs and wants of all its varied customers.

    Of course, hammers and cars are not romantic, sexy, or cutting edge. Tech nerds and investors like to look down on such industries as “dead,” because innovation has largely ceased and it’s become a stable, sedate, modestly profitable but not exciting industry. Well sorry to spoil things, but that’s what the tech industry is becoming. Get used to it. Grow up and deal.

    1. ?? Are you serious? You realize thinking about the future is an important part of my job function? So I’m just sharing some thoughts and brainstorming about the next paradigm.

      1. I am saying that the tech industry needs to stop seeing itself as special and accept that they are just another tool maker now, no more or less worthy of attention than Ford or GM or Dewalt or Black and Decker.

        Your job makes sense in an industry that’s in its infancy. As the industry matures, you may need to start looking beyond the tech sector for work.

        1. Tech still has a long way to go. Lots of innoavation and new tech experiences to be had. Tech will invade every category hence its relevance for a long time to come.

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