Did Microsoft just out-Apple Apple?

When we think of Apple products these days we think of high quality, machined metal cases, slick marketing and an aura of cool. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed the first of their own products that more than ticked those boxes.

For years, Apple has led the way in terms of high quality products that are desirable from a consumer standpoint – 5 minutes with a “top of the line” Windows based laptop and an equivalent MacBook demonstrates how great that gulf is – the Apple products feel solid, and rightly so, being milled from a single block of aluminium, whereas the PC often feels cheap, even in the rare case where it has been finished with a metal case.

The Microsoft announcement of the Surface Book looks set to change that.

The video above shows a product that could be straight out of the Apple line up – it looks good and seems just as solid as a Macbook Pro. It seems like a device that we would actually want to use.

So what’s the rub?

Apple is a computer company, whereas Microsoft is first and foremost a software company. Since day 1, Apple have produced the whole computer – from the box to the internal hardware to the operating system; they decide what a Mac actually is – you don’t tend to find many non Apple devices running Apple’s Operating System OSX unless it is an unlicensed “hackingtosh”. Microsoft on the other hand build software, specifically their Operating System Windows which is installed on an almost endless variety of hardware. Indeed, Microsoft actually started by making software for the original Apple Mac.

The attitude towards Apple products is that they ‘just work’, whereas it seems that Windows products break with relative frequency, requiring fresh installs semi regularly just to keep them going. A major part of this is that the Operating Systems are designed for completely different environments – Apple know exactly what hardware the system will run on and so can easily design it to always work with that hardware. Microsoft on the other hand have a much harder task; they are building software that will be run on hardware that sometimes hasn’t even been invented at the time that it is being built. The end result is that they have to be able to support an infinite number of configurations, resulting in software that is much more patchy than the Apple equivalent.

Microsoft are starting to change that though.

The Surface Book is the first true Microsoft laptop – they are now solidifying their position in the hardware market. Not only does this laptop look like a true competitor in terms of hardware to Apple, but it almost definitely will be in terms of reliability. Microsoft have been able to pick and choose the components that they know will work best, and to specifically write the code for their OS Windows 10 with those components in mind. This is likely one of the first Microsoft products that will ‘just work’.

That may sound a little unfair – Microsoft have had their own lineup of specifically designed products for nearly 3 years at this point; the original Surface was released in October 2012. Adoption has been relatively low, although the Surface Pro in it’s various iterations has seen surprisingly high adoption at the enterprise level but this is the first of the MS products that probably won’t be picked up mainly by niche design / field-based or engineering professions. This is the first MS product that I can see us recommending to a great number of clients.

Why not just buy Apple?

We regularly consult clients on internal user hardware decisions – many companies want to invest in products for their workforce that look good in front of clients, are easy to manage from an IT perspective and most importantly, allow users to perform their jobs exceptionally. The conversation usually involves management who want their teams using iPads because they look good and are incredibly easy to use, and IT managers who realise that integrating Apple products into their existing infrastructure is a complete pain that sucks man hours from their team. It has certainly become easier to integrate the Apple lineup in recent years but many are still wary of the fact that iPads are “consumption” devices rather than being very practical to actually be productive on.

Apple has tried to combat this by producing the iPad Pro – however this is still really a consumption device, dressed up as something more. Most users need to return to a desktop or laptop to actually get their work done, even if they use a tablet whilst on the move. At the enterprise level, those productive devices tend to be Windows based.

Microsoft produce the software and operating systems that actually run companies – nearly every company in the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 run on (simply put) a combination of Windows Server and MS Exchange, the email and user management platform and bringing Apple devices into this fold is more troublesome than bringing in Windows based devices because they run on differing architectures and weren’t necessarily designed with the enterprise world in mind.

Why does this matter?

If we were in the business of stock tips we would say buy MSFT. They are realising that if they own the whole product production cycle, then their products won’t be defined by the poor executions that currently appear to be the rule rather than the exception.

Companies will buy this premium laptop because it is at about the same price point as the old workhorse of many enterprise firms, the IBM (now Lenovo) ThinkPad, but is significantly more attractive and likely at least just as good.

From a general consumer perspective, we think that the Surface Book is as sexy as the Apple MacBook but has increased functionality due to it’s dual modes as a laptop and standalone tablet. Apple have pushed for a more minimal approach to their line up, famously the latest MacBook has only one universal port, which whilst a great idea in theory, we can tell you from personal experience is actually a pain in real life. Want to get pictures from your SD card in your camera? There’s an adapter for that. Charge your iPhone on the go? Adapter. Connect to another monitor? Yep, another adapter. Each at a not insignificant £25+. We’re not saying that Apple has made a misstep but when you need to carry 3 adapters just to do relatively common tasks you’re left questioning just how practical the device actually is.

Steve Jobs famous mantra was that people don’t know what they want until they are given it – in our opinion Microsoft may just have given people what they actually want in the Surface Book.