Below the Surface, Microsoft is not the new Apple

A meticulous attention to hardware detail does not a company upending make.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

On the heels of its Surface Go announcement, Microsoft last week revved the line's signature Surface Pro, the Surface Laptop, and the Surface Studio. Black finish options aside, these products look almost exactly like their predecessors. And, with one significant exception, they were introduced with an approach similar to previous Surface devices. Microsoft has spun an attractive narrative that emphasizes a meticulous attention to detail, the thoughtfulness applied to each design decision, and advanced engineering required to achieve advantages that a casual buyer might overlook.

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    Those elements are familiar to those who have seen Apple product introductions. Indeed, with Surface devices pretty transparently aimed at courting Apple users, including direct comparisons of battery life, it's not surprising that they would be. Add in a neatly segmented portable product line and a new foray into agent-enabled personal audio products, and it's little surprise that many have been inspired to call Microsoft "the new Apple." But that's a gross mischaracterization across the board for a number of reasons.

    Apple isn't a Mac company anymore

    Microsoft might have raised some eyebrows by saying of its computing devices, "It's not a PC. It's a Surface." in the same vein that HBO's famous slogan proclaimed "It's not TV. It's HBO." That's a noteworthy shift from the days when Microsoft was eager to demonstrate that the PC deserved your love in the PC Plus era.

    However, despite Apple continuing to invest in the Mac and recent promotions highlighting its users, Apple really isn't a PC or Mac company anymore. This is not only obvious from the overwhelming amount of its revenue coming from the smartphone, but also from its championing of the iPad as driving the "post-PC era." Indeed, Microsoft framed its hardware introduction by referring to its modern explicit focus on productivity. Apple makes no such qualification because, as a power in the dominant consumer computing platform known as the smartphone, it can cater to both productivity and a wide range of leisure pursuits beyond those of Microsoft's Xbox.

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      Indeed, even it were rolling out the latest version of Surface phones, Microsoft wouldn't be the new Apple, as Apple is planting seeds for the post-smartphone era. In the case of wearables, it's all in. For augmented reality, it's building up developer support in advance of dedicated hardware. And it's in the early days of smart speakers compared to Amazon. Microsoft wowed the world with HoloLens, but it still is not a consumer platform, and there is no official timeline for when it might become one.

      For Microsoft, hardware supports software

      The Surface Laptop exists because the Surface Pro has been successful enough to open the door for it and other line expansions such as the niche Surface Studio. Microsoft even seems to have finally gotten the low-end Surface nut cracked with the Surface Go. But poking Apple in the eye isn't enough of a justification for the Surface business. Despite the line's success, it is still a tiny fraction of Microsoft's revenue that must be profitable, but is never expected -- and perhaps cannot be given the conflict that would create with licensees -- to become a dominant revenue stream for Microsoft the way it is for Apple. At Microsoft's Build events, you'll hear much more about AI and Azure than hardware and hinges.

      Surface Pro: The evolution of Microsoft's hybrid tablet PC

      The most recent Surface event reflected the products' role in supporting Windows and Office. In contrast, while Apple wants customers to always have its latest operating systems, it doesn't sell, and therefore doesn't directly market, macOS. And Apple certainly doesn't spend that much time promoting its desktop office suite. (Yes, it still has one!)

      Apple never has to accommodate licensees

      Not only is Microsoft not the new Apple; it's not even the old Apple. When Surface was announced, there was much debate around whether Microsoft could break the pattern of doom when OS licensors compete with their licensees. The company has largely avoided conflict by focusing its device portfolio to compete most directly with Apple's and by embracing Surface Pro-like products from other PC manufacturers. Surface's success has likely emboldened Google and Amazon to produce their own devices while continuing to seek broad licensing. One could even argue that Surface has provided more incentive for Microsoft to step up efforts such as its own stores and retail areas within Best Buy that also feature licensees' PCs.

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      But think about that quip about the Surface not being a PC. What does that say about the merits of other products that are PCs and bound by the same version of Windows? The contrast between the treatment received by Surface and licensees was not pretty when, at its 2017 fall education event, Microsoft introduced the premium Surface Laptop, while the third-party announcements were focused on low-margin, Alcantara-bereft laptops. This year's Surface event involved no licensees' PCs. Particularly without the Surface Book skipping an update, though, the Surface Laptop was presented as a far more broadly relevant device -- one that was well-suited to businesspeople as opposed to primarily college students and staff.

      In contrast, the most Apple ever has to think about in terms of home-turf competition is cannibalization of its own product. Sometimes that can happen. But the company has consistently shown over the years that it cares much less about which Apple product customers buy than that they buy an Apple product. Microsoft has done an exceptional job avoiding the conflict with its licensees, but it can never fully eliminate it.

      For Apple, a tablet is still a tablet

      Without a doubt, Surface competition has pushed the iPad, particularly the iPad Pro, to offer better support for pen and keyboard input. But strip away those accessories and the iPad retains its original proposition as a generous stage for apps manipulated with fingers. Apple has also significantly improved the iPad's file handling in the last few versions of iOS. But, again, those are largely out of the way if you don't want to use them.

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      In contrast, the original Surface asked the riddle, "What do you get when you blend a laptop and a tablet?"' Six years in, the answer is "mostly a laptop." A Surface Pro or Go can display PDFs or movies as effectively as any tablet (perhaps more so for movies with the kickstand). But despite showing developers how they can effectively bridge desktop and touch apps, Microsoft still hasn't really recovered from the touch app desertion that resulted from a renewed embrace of the desktop UI and the demise of its smartphone efforts. The Surface Go is a slim, lightweight device that aptly handles traditional PC tasks on the move, but it is not attracting the kind of apps that the iPad attracts. For example, forget about an optimized touch experience when accessing what would be Google app experiences on the iPad.

      For more than 40 years, Microsoft and Apple have represented contrasting approaches to computing. Each has seen its share of successes and failures as their competition has evolved. Today, both companies are making the best devices in their history and are looking at how technologies such as AI, augmented reality, and speech agents will shape their future. But you can bet that those shared pursuits will result in distinct implementations that reflect their dramatically different business goals, culture and identity.

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