Stray thoughts about this week’s Computer Announcements

On Wednesday, Microsoft the Surface Studio:

Immediately followed by Apple announcing the Macbook Pro (2016) the very next day:

These computers show very much where each of these companies are right now. Having recently watched Steve Jobs, it also struck me as how much these companies have changed over the past 20 years, in many ways, each becoming what the other one was.

There is nothing in the new Macbook Pro that still smacks of the old “Think Different” campaigns that Apple used to live by. They’re no longer the plucky underdogs targeting the people who think different — they’re the massively popular overlords who’re targeting their audience: everyone.

Conversely, Microsoft (despite the still-dominance of Windows in corporate installs), has more or less lost the popular mindshare of personal computing. Everyone has macs. And so their audience isn’t everyone anymore. It’s people who’re not being served by Macs.

So, 20 years ago, Apple targeted creatives — who were not well served by Microsoft. Today, the opposite is true — Apple, effectively, has ceded the “pro” space, the people who need all the things on their systems. Michael Tsai’s excellent evisceration of the new Macbook Pro says that better than I could. Whereas the Surface Studio is explicitly aimed at creatives who need something “different” than what is usually available out there.

20-odd years ago, Apple was squarely targeting the 10% of people who were not being served by what Windows offered (nb: I’m not saying they didn’t want everyone using a Mac — they certainly did, and, indeed, their current success indicates their ideas were right). They targeted designers, creatives, thought leaders who helped turn their brand around. What’s weird for everyone who’s been a long-time Mac user is that whereas previously there’s a sense that “they” were the audience for Apple — that’s no longer true. Apple’s now got to appeal for the very general user, in many ways the lowest common denominator user — what used to be the domain of the Microsoft. Given their volumes of devices sold, there’s zero financial incentive to add features that appeal to only a small subset of people anymore. Conversely, and what is a pretty big cognitive shift for everyone — consumers, tech media, probably the company itself, is that it is important for Microsoft to do so: they’ve ceded the mobile space. They appear to have recognized that desktops & even laptops are increasingly niche devices, and, on top of that, they’re no longer the default choice for most shoppers. So, stealing directly from Apple’s playbook, it looks like Microsoft is asking people to Think Different these days. Gabe (from Penny Arcade) wrote a long puff-piecereview of his involvement with the development of, and use of, the new Surface Studio that is incredibly compelling.

A last thought: I’m not arguing that Apple is in any way less innovative than it was. I feel like there’s a pretty direct line of continued hardware innovation from them. What’s dramatically different is where they’re innovating. They’re no longer pushing the bleeding edge for a particular subset of users — they’re finding ways of making the bleeding edge more palatable for the mainstream.

My guess: Whereas for the past 3–4 years I pretty much only saw MacBooks & iMacs on coffee shop tables & office desks, over the next 3–4, we’re going to see an increasing number of Surfaces on both too, because suddenly, the industrial design of Microsoft products has caught up (surpassed?) with Apple, but with Windows 10, there’s a fundamentally different, but also very compelling approach to modern desk(lap)top computing. I’m not sure we’ve had a time (maybe the early-to-mid 80s?) where multiple computing hardware and OS companies have been firing on all cylinders creating such compelling competition for our dollars.