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Microsoft Has Out-Appled Apple While Apple Loses Its Way

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I don’t write a lot about non-enterprise IT stuff, but in this case, I’m making an exception.

I used to be a Windows guy and was vehemently anti-Apple… and then I gave it a real chance and discovered, well, I was wrong.  Apple was releasing products that worked extremely well while, at the same time, the Windows ecosystem was a race to the bottom, with manufacturers churning out utter junk filled to capacity with malwa… err… bundled software.

Year after year, Apple gave to the world machines that were truly innovative and that had great value, even at a very high price point.  The hardware build quality was second to none and OS X, while it took some time to adjust to, has proven to be well-constructed.  Bear in mind that I made my jump to Mac in the Windows Vista/7/8 era, so, with the exception of Windows 7, there wasn’t much to love in the world of Microsoft.

So, after decades of Windows, I was finally a convert and, today, my house is chock full of Apple gear and my work depends on my iMac, MacBook Pro, and iPhone.  When I made the transition, Apple was in full swing to create a user experience that was unparalleled while maintaining hardware quality.  My livelihood is fully dependent on having functional tech, so the investment was more than worth it.

And then Steve Jobs died.

Obviously, when the person credited with so much world-changing stuff leave the world, the company will also change direction.  Under Steve’s hand, however, I always felt that, while he certainly had his personal challenges, he always wanted to solve a problem or give the world cool stuff… while also making a ton of money.  For him, for Apple, and for the user, it was a winning combination.  We happily shelled over money year after year for new gear because there was something compelling.

As someone I know recently out it, Steve was all about solving problems you didn’t know you had.

The dichotomy between Apple and Microsoft (to be fair, the entire ecosystem) could not have been more stark.

And then something changed at Microsoft.  At some point, someone inside Microsoft looked out the window and realized that their partners were killing them.  In their quest to put the cheapest stuff out on the market, Microsoft’s partners were choking the mothership.  Rather than take it lying down, Microsoft began to compete directly with its partners and the company created top notch products in the Surface, Surface Pro, and Surface Book (especially the Surface Book) products.  Reviews for these products have been pretty great, although, as with every new product, there were some initial speed bumps, but these problems have been largely solved.

This week, Microsoft upped the ante in a big way.  The Surface Studio is a marvel of engineering and is incredibly powerful, incredibly functional, and knows its audience.  I had the opportunity to play with one this week at a Microsoft store and I was beyond impressed.  There was a day when I wanted new gear just because it was available.  The Surface Studio reminded me of those days.  I want one.  Sure, I can say it’s because of the power and all of that, but it’s just as much about the beauty and functionality of the machine.

The day after Microsoft released this gigantic thing of beauty, Apple held an event and announced the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro.  The hero feature this time around is the Touch Bar, which replaces the eminently functional function keys—and the freaking Escape key—on the keyboard.  In addition, the latest MacBook Pro eliminates the HDMI port, all of the USB-A ports, the original Thunderbolt ports, as well as the SD card slot.  In what is a bit of a head scratcher, Apple chose to leave in place the 3.5mm audio jack that the company just ripped from its iPhone for no apparent reason beyond “courage” of some kind.

Apple is a Mess

As I write this post on my mid-2014 MacBook Pro, I realize that the new machine is far from what I hoped it would be, particularly when you compare it against the rest of Apple’s product line.  I’m a fan of making things easier and, in so very many ways, Apple completely botched this laptop, again, particularly when you consider it alongside the iPhone 7.  Here are just a few ways that the company has, in my opinion, messed up:

  • The left the audio jack in place/They didn’t add a lightning port. I’m not a fan of the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack from the iPhone.  I don’t believe it was “courage” that drove the company to this decision, but, rather, greed.  Without an audio jack, a whole lot of people will now be in the market for new wireless headphones, which Apple now sells, separately, of course.  The headphones that come with iPhone 7 won’t even work with the MacBook Pro anymore because Apple didn’t bother to add a Lightning port to the new device.  The saving grace is that I can just keep using my old headphones or I can just buy a wireless set of headphones that work with both, but this is just more expense to what is already an expensive ecosystem.
  • iPhone 7 USB-C/USB-A/Lightning. So… I can no longer charge an iPhone 7 with my 2016 MacBook Pro unless I buy Yet Another Dongle (or Yet Another Adapter) or a USB-C to lightning cable.  Don’t even get me started on the mess that is USB C.  My friend Stephen Foskett covers that in depth.
  • No more MagSafe. I don’t like to say this quite so bluntly, but this is truly stupid.  It may not seem like much, but MagSafe was, perhaps, one of the best things about the MacBook for many.  No more tripping over cables and dragging the laptop to the floor.  Now, you can charge your MacBook only using USB-C.
  • Goodbye HDMI. I speak around the country and carry with me VGA and HDMI to Thunderbolt adapters.  If I need HDMI, though, I am able to just plug in my laptop.  No dongle required.  The new MacBook has no such port and will, again, require Yet Another Dongle if I choose to buy the new device.
  • SD card eliminated. I can live with this.  For me, it’s so rarely used that I won’t miss it, but it will be missed by millons of others that rely on it and will now get to rely on an adapter of some kind.
  • The Touch Bar. Meh. No Escape key makes this difficult to accept, but it’s something I could probably adjust to with little effort. However, I don’t see the Touch Bar as particularly useful in most scenarios since it splits the user’s attention between a big display and a little tiny one.

Apple’s Stock Price and Microsoft’s Gain

Under Steve’s guidance, I’m sure that the stock price was important, but he always seemed to have our backs as well.  Under Tim, it’s clear that the marching orders are to make things such a mess that people have to carry with them all kind of Apple-sanctioned adapters just to be able to work adequately.  Apple’s shareholders win while customers lose.  While this may be great in the short term, for the long term, I believe that it’s critical that Apple instill some of that old mojo that they used to have and that the stop being “courageous” and trade a bit of that for pragmatism.

Apple has become so laser-focused on the iPhone that everything else is suffering.  For a company with the resources that it has, I’m stunned that they can seemingly focus on only one big thing at a time.  While Mac no longer represents a major part of Apple’s revenues (9% to 13% depending on quarter), it’s still an important part of many people’s lives and it’s disheartening to see that Apple is almost intentionally trying to ruin what’s left.  Mac sales were already plummeting and I don’t see this newest machine reversing that trend beyond what will undoubtedly be a short-lived bump from hardcore enthusiasts looking for the latest and greatest.

Personally, I think Microsoft won in a big way this week and it positioning itself very nicely against Apple.  The new Surface Studio as well as their refreshed Surface Book configurations are incredibly compelling alternatives when compared to the Apple ecosystem, which is becoming increasingly chaotic thanks to incredibly poor decision making and strategy.  If Microsoft can keep it up, they will be the high-end computing powerhouse and will quickly erode Apple’s position in the high-end market.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Microsoft is its terrible native presence in mobile.  The company’s failures in this space are, well, pretty significant.  However, recognizing this, Microsoft is doing a great job of making its services available on other company’s platforms—iOS and Android—which will work reasonably well for them for now.  It’s still not as seamless as the Apple ecosystem, which, even with the events of this week, is still good.  However, for those that look to Apple for things that “just work,” the events of this week are certainly problematic and may push more people to consider alternative options.

Scott Lowe
scott@actualtechmedia.com

Follow Scott on Twitter   Scott is Co-Founder of ActualTech Media and serves as Senior Content Editor and Strategist. Scott is an enterprise IT veteran with more than twenty years experience in senior and CIO roles across multiple organizations.

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