The New Microsoft is the Old Apple

After Microsoft's October Surface event, I can't help but feel that Microsoft has now taken Apple's role in pushing hardware forward.

It’s no secret I’m no fan of today’s Apple. I feel their products are stagnating and very expensive, and their locked down approach sends shivers down my spine, as I see the many warnings I get while using Mac OS X, slowly ticking towards the end of life for many 32 bit games and applications I use everyday.

I used to lust after Apple products

White Macbook

This used to be the pinnacle of laptops..

This is a strong term, but well deserved. As a student, my dream was to be able to afford a beautiful white MacBook, use OS X, and all these nicely designed apps for 10.4 Tiger. I watched videos of OS X running, drooling over the attention to detail. Sure, it was expensive, but if offered something no one else did: a beautiful package, powerful components, and a user experience no one else could even touch.

As a matter of fact, my quest to make my OS look as much as OS X as could be is what drove me to use Linux in the first place. I spent hours using baghira to tweak my KDE 3.5 desktop and perfect every little detail, but it was still a copycat, and not the real thing. In the end, I ended up buying a MacBook Air when I started working, as well as an iPhone, and an iMac. All these products are now sold and gone, and the only contact I have with Apple products is my work MacBook Air, which is, to put it mildly, a terrible heap of components in a slim package.

Apple has fallen very far from its tree

Macbook Air

This used to be the pinnacle of laptops..

For its asking price, this is a terrible machine. Thermal throttling makes it anemic processor choke on the most basic of tasks

Pardon the terrible pun. Today’s Apple doesn’t have much in common with the company it once was. The departure of Steve Jobs, which seemed like a terrible individual, but with great marketing chops and a total intransigeance in pursuit of a perfect user experience, has been a huge loss for Apple. The rest of the team worked on trying to continue his legacy, and, in my opinion, failed.

This might ruffle the Apple faithful’s feathers, but the company it has become is now a bloated shell around a diminishing core of its former self. It thrives on selling products at an obscenely high margin, with the same components its competitors used a few years ago, and its software is getting less efficient after each update.

Mac OS is no longer a pinnacle of consistency and delight, it’s a hindrance, with road blocks everywhere, to install apps outside of the Mac App Store, to use older applications, or simply to maximize a window without displacing it to another virtual desktop. iOS releases are buggier and buggier, and inconsistencies abound. It seems every new version degrades some part of the user experience for no reason other than to change how things work.

In a way, Apple’s software has become the opposite of its hardware: where one seems to be hell bent on changing every little detail every release, without any good justification, the other stays frozen in place, with very little change when users are clamoring for everything Apple’s competitors are offering.

Apple’s products are no longer unique. Other manufacturers are beating them on performance, thinness, looks, for equal, or lower prices. Their laptops are now underpowered trophies, and their phones are barely keeping up with chinese manufacturers. The only place where Apple kept its edge is in the tablet market, but that’s mainly because no one else has any apps to go with their more affordable, equally well designed hardware.

Microsoft is no hero either

Surface Pro 3

I used one of these for a few years, and it's still one of my favorite devices.

I’m not a big fan of Microsoft either. I used to be a Windows Phone fanboy, before I realised the company didn’t care about this market in the slightest. I used to have an Xbox One and liked it far better than my PS4. But on PC ? I have never seen the appeal.

Software-wise, Microsoft is still a bloated mess. Windows is, in my opinion, a relic of the past, a giant SUV running on fumes, stuffed with old boxes that no one ever uses anymore, just for the sake of not letting anything go.

Windows 10 oozes with terrible design decisions, going back and forth on various new designs, never really implementing one fully across all its apps and system components. But on the hardware side ? Microsoft has clearly learned a great deal about how to make things work seamlesly, and as terrible as I think Windows is, its team seems to be working well in conjunction with the hardware team.

But it’s pushing the envelope

This hardware is basically limited to the Surface line of products. Many people online are criticizing the good old Surface, but it’s a stellar product. Portable, powerful, affordable for what it offers, and extremely well built and designed. I used a Surface Pro 3 for 2 years in my last job in Paris, and I can safely say that for meetings, note taking, and quick mockups of interface prototypes, nothing comes even close.

The Surface line has had its issues. Firmware updates on the Surface Book tended to crash the devices, the alcantara keyboards on the Surface laptops seem to have a tendency to pick up hand grease and stains, and the Surface Studio, as beautiful as it looks, is still very expensive for the hardware it offers.

Still, yesterday, Microsoft introduced a host of new Surface products, and this presentation was a shiny one. Not on the form, unless you’re a fan of Panos Panay’s quick changes of pace and word stumbling (it’s charming in a way, but not as polished as an Apple Keynote can be), but on the substance.

Microsoft introduced no less than 6 new Surface products, and while some are very much the continuation of the existing lines, such as the Surface Pro 7, or the Surface Laptop 3, others are really trying to bring something new to market, something that used to be Apple’s territory.

Surface Pro X

That thing looks beautiful. Not a revolution, but a great evolution

The Surface Pro X comes with its own custom, Microsoft-designed ARM processor to enable all day LTE connectivity, and is the flagship for Windows on ARM. It’s subjective, but it looks absolutely stunning.

The Surface Neo is a brand new category in and of itself: a dual screen foldable device, wedged halfway between a laptop and two tablets. It folds two-ways, with any form factor available: a 9’’ tablet, a book, or a small laptop, or even a big 13’’ tablet when unfolded. It has its own magnetically attached keyboard, and when it’s folded over the second screen, Windows actually changes how stuff is displayed to create a bigger, actually useful alternative to Apple’s touchbar, which can double as an inking surface, or a touchpad.

Surface Duo

Whether you like dual screen devices or not, this is a beautiful product

To finish, the Surface Duo is a dual screen foldable tablet running Android with Microsoft apps preinstalled, and it also doubles as a big phone when folded. Microsoft being out of the smartphone OS market, using Android is simply making the best out of the available tools out there, and while it’s surprising, it’s not all that crazy.

Surface Fold

Not the Surface Phone people were waiting for, but a very interesting proposition nonetheless, especially with Android

This kind of new hardware used to be Apple’s prerogative

It will depend on whether you think dual screen devices are useful or not, but if you do, you probably were as awestruck as I was. This kind of excitement, shock, and simple hardware lust has never hit me with anything else than Apple’s stuff. I know better than to rush and preorder any of it, but the feeling is here.

This hardware is beautifully designed, integrates well with its default software (how third party developers will use it is another matter entirely), and is simply something that has not been seen before, not with this level of polish.

When Apple fawns over small processor upgrades while keeping the exact same design as before, Microsoft is creating two entirely new devices, and offering a variant of one people are used to, with a better design and greater mobility.

iPhone Optics

This is Apple's contribution this year. A fidget spinner mounted on the back of a sea green phone that keeps its predecessor design.

Where Apple is content with incremental upgrades, Microsoft is putting its hardware out there, and trying to change people’s habits.

In my mind, there is no doubt about it. Apple is now playing catch-up, content to follow in a visionary’s footsteps, cashing in everything it can fro its existing product lines, and touching as little is necessary to keep selling its products. Microsoft, on the other hand, has managed to make a pachydermic, in-fighting and bloated company give birth to stuff that has people (or at the very least, me) drooling after.

The last time I felt this kind of compulsion, it was with the introduction of the first iPad. Since then, I saw nothing from Apple that remotely made me want to add stuff to an online cart and take a day off to get my package the day it arrives. Microsoft, of all companies, has managed to make me lust. And, to me at least, that is saying something.

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