Apple has been outsmarted by Microsoft

Both Apple and Microsoft have unveiled what is probably the final new hardware offering of 2016 for each company, and an initial assessment suggests that Apple may be in second place.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Last week was a big week for those of us who keep track of hardware. Microsoft unveiled an updated Surface Book and a completely new product called the Surface Studio, while Apple finally pushed out a much-needed update to its MacBook Pro lineup.

While diehard fans will no doubt only need to look at the logo that's emblazoned on the hardware to decide which is the best, I've spent a few days examining the specs and videos of the launch events to look for hints and clues as to what the thinking was that led to each company coming out with the devices they did.

And the more I connect the dots, the more I feel that Apple has been outsmarted and outmaneuvered by Microsoft.

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Let's take a look at the differences between what Apple and Microsoft have offered up.

First, let's look at Apple's new MacBook Pro laptops. While it seems that Apple has worked hard on redesigning the MacBook Pro's chassis, shaving off a significant amount of weight and thickness, as well as sourcing some high-end components to power the device, the two main changes that Apple has brought to the MacBook Pro are:

  • Consolidating a jumble of ports to a single set of ports
  • The Touch Bar

If you're a current MacBook Pro owner, then it won't have escaped you that you have a myriad of different ports at your disposal, ranging from Thunderbolt and USB to HDMI and even an SD card slot. Once you upgrade you're looking at having to hook up any peripherals you rely on to one of the four USB-C ports on offer (three really, because you'll need to keep the fourth available to power the new MacBook Pro).

Now if everything you own will hook up to a USB-C port, or you never connect anything to your MacBook Pro, then this is not going to be a worry to you. But if you do connect to stuff -- USB flash drives, backup storage, scanners, displays, ethernet, and so on -- then you're going to have to rely on dongles -- lots of dongles -- or spend money on upgrading your hardware ecosystem.

Many believe the problem with dongles is the price, but when you're spending upwards of $1,500 on new hardware, a few bucks on dongles is neither here nor there. The problem comes down to having to transport the dongle around with the laptop, and the hassles and potential hit to productivity when you invariably forget it.

What's interesting here is that the people who are going to be the hardest hit by this move are pros, and yet this is who the MacBook Pro is seemingly aimed at. The more you've invested in your Mac's ecosystem, the harder, more expensive, and more disruptive the upgrade becomes.

Another thing to bear in mind is that USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 aren't the tidy "universal" ports that the naming suggests. There's a strong chance that not all your existing hardware -- even if it claims USB-C compatibility -- will be compatible. Stephen Foskett has written up a handy guide outlining some of the problems you might run into.

And if you do run into problems after buying a new MacBook Pro, then spending more money is the only way to dig yourself out of the hole you've jumped into.

As for the Touch Bar, I'm still torn between this being something truly innovative, and some lame stop-gap before Apple makes a touchscreen MacBook Pro. While I can see some interesting possibilities for the Touch Bar, some things bother me:

  • I'm not sure why peering at a tiny touchscreen is better than looking at the main screen.
  • If you watched the launch keynote you'd have noticed that everyone using the Touch Bar was standing. Right now I'm sitting at my desk with my old MacBook Pro in front of me, and I'm not sure that the Touch Bar would be all that useful because of its placement.
  • The Touch Bar demos during the keynote all seemed clumsy to me. Now this could be because of performance anxiety during the event, but it really seemed to me that all the demos could have been better carried out using the existing screen, keyboard, and trackpad.

It's also important to bear in mind that while the Touch Bar might be new, the idea has its roots in things such as the Art Lebedev keyboards and technologies such as Windows Vista's SideShow.

Despite the price (and the name), the MacBook Pro doesn't feel like it was created with professionals in mind. Gimmicks such as the Touch Bar, along with omissions such as the lack of a high-end 32GB RAM option, make this feel more like an overpriced laptop that kids heading off to college will optimistically ask for.

It feels like Apple's almost decade-long focus on making the iPhone a mainstream device has rubbed off on its other hardware.

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Let's now come to what Microsoft had to offer us at its event. We got:

  • A solid upgrade to the Surface Book
  • A PC aimed squarely at design professionals

What is particularly stand out about the Surface Studio is that Microsoft designed a system that's clearly aimed at creative folks who have deep pockets -- how else could you describe a $3,000+ 28-inch touchscreen system with an adjustable "Zero Gravity" hinge that comes kitted with a pen and the new Surface Dial? -- yet thanks to its four USB 3.0 ports, SD card reader, and mini DisplayPort, it should be able to slip seamlessly onto any designer's desk without any real peripheral headache.

Microsoft has designed a high-end desktop PC for professionals who already use a PC. And you can bring a Surface Studio into the fold without having to upgrade everything else on your desk.

So, why do I think that Microsoft has outsmarted and outmaneuvered Apple? Because while there's no doubt that Apple knows how to innovate, it feels like the company has lost sight of professionals.

The mantra of "thinner, lighter, and fewer ports" fits in with what we've come to expect from Apple, but these are rarely features I hear being requested by professionals. Equally, while the Touch Bar is certainly innovative, and gives Apple a new feature to promote on its website and on the box, it's again not what pros are asking for.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has with the Surface Studio taken the PC and tweaked the form factor a little to make it more useful, and then crammed it with high-end hardware aimed at creative types. In fact, many design pros I know will now be able to replace their expensive pen displays -- a 27-inch Cintiq pen display is $2,299, and you still need a computer to drive it -- with a 28-inch Surface Studio, without upgrading every other piece of hardware or peripheral they have.

Microsoft has resisted the temptation to build a "one-size-fits-all-PC" and has come out with a focused product suited to creative professionals.

Which, oddly enough, is where Apple was a few years ago. Microsoft's interest in developing high-end PCs now puts considerable pressure on Apple, especially given how old and stale Apple's desktop computer lineup is.

Interesting times are ahead.

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