There’s an odd irony to Microsoft’s unveiling of its new Surface Studio computer in the week that long-time rival Apple announced its first annual decline in sales and profit in 15 years.
In the same week Apple unveiled its new MacBook Pro, which was welcomed and panned in seemingly equal parts. It’s a remarkable turn of events that the maker of the computers beloved by designers and the media should suddenly seem out of touch.
The most innovative thing in the new MacBook Pro range isn’t its USB Type-C port (which Apple originally introduced with last year’s ultra-slim MacBook and now calls Thunderbolt 3) but a touch-sensitive strip at the top of the keyboard that adjusts what it displays, depending on what app you’re using — including emoji.
Yes, it’s taken four years to make it easier to put a "tears of joy" emoji into your e-mail.
On the other hand, the Surface Studio is being heaped with praise for reinventing how the computer might function. With the bulk of its hardware set in its base, the 38-inch touch-sensitive monitor can swivel into multiple positions. The beautifully styled Surface Studio, also an all-in-one device like the iMac, has a clever hinge and a touch screen, dial adaptor and stylus.
It seems remarkable that the perception tide has turned in both instances. It’s now Microsoft that is praised for great design and for making sexy hardware, while Apple is pilloried for staid design and lack of innovation (the iPhone 7 for using the industrial design of the 6S and the MacBook Pro for its lack of impressive new features).
Apple has also attracted a barrage of criticism for not being as slick and dependable as it was under Steve Jobs. The past two quarters’ fall in iPhone sales — this quarter was down 5% year on year, to 45.5m handsets — have inspired no end of Schadenfreude .
It’s a fascinating reversal, even if Apple is still worth US$622bn and is the most valuable company in the world. The two pioneers of the desktop revolution went on widely divergent paths: Microsoft focused on software and has made its founder, Bill Gates, the world’s richest man.
Apple’s combination of hardware and software produced the first PC, the Macintosh, but it went through that notorious slump until the second coming of Jobs.
The company’s share price has defied gravity in an unprecedented 15-year run of growth that has seen Jobs’s style-optimising gadgets become the global must-have devices.
Meanwhile, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has gone about remaking Microsoft for a new era, pushing a cloud-first, mobile-first strategy that has resulted in it becoming the second-largest cloud service provider after Amazon.
The overpriced $26bn purchase of LinkedIn notwithstanding, this latest hardware offering is another strong sign that Nadella has found a new path for Microsoft to follow into a possible next act in the future software world.