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Getting in touch with creators: how Microsoft is courting Apple's creators

Microsoft recently introduced the Surface Studio, a 28-inch convertible, touch-screen PC that turns a desktop into a Studio and the Surface Dial, an innovative new peripheral.

In the wake of Redmond's category-defining presentation, Apple introduced a refreshed line of MacBooks. The souped-up hardware continued its legacy of high-end design and, as expected, an exclusion of a touch-screen experience.

As a metaphoric dip of a toe into a world that has gone all-in with all-touch, Apple sprawled a thin "strip of touch" across the top of the MacBook's keyboard. The TouchBar is Apple's way of participating in a world where digital content is manipulated through screens almost as naturally as one handles physical objects.

While Microsoft's full touch approach immerses users in their digital content; Apple continues to keep users, and their content at a virtual arm's length as the keyboard remains their only bridge to "touching" their content.

Apple's ideological shift toward productivity?

Apple has a history and a reputation as being the company that provides creators with the tools that they need to be creative. This reputation persists, though it is diminishing among the artistic elite. Still, despite evidence of lack of software support and complaints of Cupertino not updating the tools that have earned the company this coveted reputation Apple's iMac has retained the "creators PC" title. It is, however, losing some of that shine.

Having earned a position as a luxury device among creatives, one may wonder why Apple might risk losing this niche stronghold. One reason may have to do with the company's arguably over-dependence on the iPhone. With 60% of its revenue coming from its flagship device it makes strategic sense for them to invest in other income streams.

Apple may be losing it's creator's focus.

Thus, nurturing a perception of its line of computers as productivity tools for the mainstream has likely taken precedence over efforts to keep the iMac in the perception-box of a niche tool for creatives. This strategy probably paid off: while the PC saw declines over the past years the Mac has performed better than Windows PCs in many quarters. They even gained market share at the cost of PCs.

Apple's focus toward a more productive Mac experience may be why Cupertino introduced a "practical" TouchBar rather than an immersive "touch environment." When one considers Apple's competition: industry-inspiring aspirational productivity devices like the Surface and Surface Book and OEM devices they inspire, one can understand an ideological direction within Apple that may see a precedence in making a Mac more efficient as a productivity device.

Moving in a direction that does not (yet) see a touch-screen as necessary for that productivity vision has positioned Apple and Microsoft's approaches and missions at polar extremes.

All up in it

Microsoft's Creator's Update, new features like 3D Paint, and the Surface Studio compose the company's every-user-is-a-creator-vision — now paired a long productivity history with a strong pitch to be the platform for creatives of every level.

The tools that Microsoft has introduced to facilitate this vision are impressive in their ability to engulf a user in the creative process. According to Microsoft Surface Division head Panos Panay, the goal of the 28-inch Surface Studio is to provide a truly immersive environment.

Surface Studio provides an immersive creative environment.

The Surface Studio's ability to convert to a 20-degree angle that mimics classic drawing boards puts users in the same natural "all-up-in-the-content" creative position experienced when working with non-digital content. Panos bragged that the quality of the 4K display wouldn't allow users to see pixels even while in that immersed-position.

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Combined with the Surface Dial, a new peripheral that lets users manipulate on-screen content, Microsoft's comprehensive touch vision further excites. When the Dial is placed on the Studio's screen the physical and digital worlds seemingly merge as a color palette or radial controls explode around the perimeter of where the base of the Dial and the screen meet.

The Surface Dial and Pen work in concert as naturally as a painters palette and brush as users effortlessly manipulate digital content with each tool. Microsoft's vision for touch to easily access and effortlessly manipulate digital information is reminiscent of the futuristic vision we saw in Minority Report.

Out of touch (or Can't touch this!)

Apple's reluctance to bring touch to macOS, and restricting even creative functions such as DJ and Video scrubbing controls to the keyboard via the TouchBar, is ironic.

Consider when Steve Job introduced the iPhone in 2007: direct interaction with the content via our fingers was the high point.

To see the rest of the world adopt touch in everything from PCs to ATMs, to vending machines and more to give users direct contact with digital content, while Apple keeps users and their content at arm's length through a TouchBar is indeed ironic.

The digitizing of keyboard controls, though uninspiring when compared to Microsoft's immersive touch approach, may have some practical benefits. Furthermore, the context sensitive nature of the TouchBar and its ability to be customized for a range of apps is a strength.

Developers can tap into both the TouchBar and Surface Dial

The Surface Dial, however, shares this strength, arguably with a much more engaging adaptation. For instance, like the TouchBar the Dial can be used to control audio volume. Moreover, rotating the Dial to adjust volume may feel more natural to users than poking at a thin strip on a keyboard.

Wrap Up

Apple and Microsoft are approaching touch from very different angles. Microsoft's approach is about putting users as close to their content as possible. By providing users an immersive digital experience that is an approximation of the physical world, Microsoft empowers users of varying skill levels to be creative and productive naturally.

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Apple's TouchBar approach, digitizing keyboard functions on the keyboard, seems targeted more toward making the manipulation of PC and app controls more accessible and efficient. That said, Microsoft's customizable Surface Dial may prove capable of the same feat while remaining an engaging tool as part of an immersive digital experience.

Microsoft's reimagining of the PC heralds a new generation of computer

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

53 Comments
  • Well folks thanks for reading! With HoloLens and Windows Holographic and the Surface line, culminating to date with the Studio and Dial Microsoft has proven itself as innovative. Apples TouchBar does have some practical applications and I can envision developers taking advantage of its contextual awareness. I can also see developers doing the same for the Surface Dial, however. I believe the Dial combined with Microsoft's all-in all touch immersive vision is far more compelling than Apples touch approach. Could Apple be looking to be better positioned for productivity, while Microsoft digs in deep with it's productivity heritage while going all out on creativity? I think Microsoft's touch approach is more compelling, it mimcs the real world and is natural, ironically something Steve Jobs advocated regarding the iPhone. So what are your thoughts. LETS TALK!!!
  • Apple is going to direction of simplifying computing for average Joe who does not even know what F1-F19 were for, except for brightness and volume. Smileys are important I guess. Also they are simplifying hardware interactivity to the point novice does not have to look for 10 seconds for the right port, just plug in to the first available since now all are USB Type-C. Add one thing, but then remove 5 other things. You are loosing power and control with each Mac and OSX release, and we, the experts do not want that. Microsoft on the other hand is giving professionals more options, more power, universal connectivity, unversal devices, even universal apps. Yes Win32 programs; yes WPF; yes UWP; yes to NET and while we are at it, make it open source; yes to Bash shell; touchscreen? Sure! Pen, ofcourse, virtual and augmented reality, even more sure... Does it get complicated, yes, because you can not add and take away at the same time. It certainly is more intimidating to novice users, but most workplaces especially outside USA use Windows machines, so better get used to it if you don't want to do physical labor.
  • A well rounded comment that is
  • To be fair I don't know what F19 is either! :P
  • Apple is more or less destroying their line of computers. THey waited years then released a MacBook Pro that is a step back from Pro. If you go to MacRumors the people there are incensed. There are a couple people trying to convince people that the Titanic is not sinking, but they are panicing. Apple released a computer that took away features, requires multiple dongles, hardware that just plain doesn't work (they removed the ability to talk with certian Thunderbolt 3 devices which contain controllers from some manufacturers because those manufacturers did not get approval from Apple), devices that work at one speed on one side of the computer, and a different speed on the other side of the computer. Limited memory, going backwards on the keyboard, and just plain made it a device that the diehards are saying they will not buy or are forced to switch to a PC.​ They tell people that they do not want touch but give them a narrow touch bar. But they left the mini-jack for audio because they say that quality over bluetooth is not as good - but tell their iPhone users that they need to use bluetooth because the mini-jack is a century old connector. And that doesn't even cover desktop Macs. They Mac Pro is 3 years old, the Mac Mini is 2. They obviously do not care about their Mac line, and have abandoned those users. Tiny Tim still buys into the "Post PC" era, and is going full steam ahead with that plan. Their iPads sales have been dropping double digits every year since the original iPad was released. Sales of their iPhone have been falling. Remember when Microsoft had for a short time around 10% of the market on WP, and the Apple fans thought that meant the collapse was around the corner (and it did)? Apple now sits at 12%. No, Apple is not going to collapse in the next year or two, but it doesn't look good for them. They are failing in miraculous ways, and Tiny Tim keeps telling us that next year they have a great lineup - and has been doing that since he took over. Apple used to release products for the niche, now if it does not hit the mass market they don't care. Microsoft is going for every niche, every corner, with different form factors, big and small. I don't like the prices of some of these devices (I have a 100 ideas for integrating the Studio into my life, but not at those prices), but Apple is even going higher on price, and alienating the consumer, the prosumer, and everyone in between.
  • (Can't edit my comment, so replying) And the proof of Apple stumbling came today - they are discounting all their dongles for the MacBook until the end of the year. They told us a couple days ago that everyone would happily throw away everything and upgrade to the new Thunderbolt because it is an advancement. Now it seems as if they don't believe their faithful fans are following along. Wait a few weeks, and I believe we will be seeing price drops on those MacBook Pros. (oops, I wrote Pros plural. Call out the ADF to correct me)
  • Already starting to happen buddy, check it: Apple temporarily cuts USB-C dongle prices to appease MacBook Pro buyers http://www.engadget.com/2016/11/04/apple-usb-c-adapters-cheaper-macbook-...
  • It's a **** up. There was no reason to have 4 USB Type C connectors. Why not 3 Type C + 1 Type A and leave it to consumer choice whether they buy dongles? This is bad bad.
  • That would make it look ****, of course John will never approve your idea.
  • As someone that had Mavericks and currently has Sierra running on his HP touchscreen laptop, Apple continues to F up. I thoroughly enjoyed using my touchscreen with OSX until they switched more hardware events over to ACPI based ones (which also caused a lot of problems for real macs when Sierra was in Beta builds).
    Apple isn't losing their touch. They've already lost it. Lost it a few years ago. I had a 920 from week 1, and in comparison the iP4 felt good in hand. Then they started getting ridiculous with thickness and weight. I like a little heft to my phone. To segue, I hate dongles.
    Apple led the way with the "do all/all in one" device. Remember the introduction of the iPhone? Phone, mp3 player, and camera in one device. That was great. Less stuff to carry. They got it. Now? They might as well be on Pluto because they're undoing that concept.
    The people like touchscreens! We'll just give them a little strip. Best part? No haptic or tactile feedback. That's true "innovation" folks. Power users who know their keyboard like the back of their hand are going to love this. Oh, and whatever happened to "It just works"!? No. No it doesn't. Windows does. Here's a slogan for you awesome Microsoft people: Windows.do;
    (get it? .Net people will like that attempt). Keep on, keeping on Microsoft. You're leaving the others in the dust. Shout out to you too Panay. Ring the bell, school's in session. You paying attention Apple? Samsung? Google?
  • Oh
  • Proud to be a softieee!!!
  • "Kirk Unit!!   V'Ger wants to join with the Creator!"
  • We need both options together in one device.
  • I think MS has taken the lead in innovation, lets be honest MS has beaten Apple at innovation since the Windows 10 story began. I will argue that beyond app gap and market share issues that W10M through UWP is probably more innovative than what iOS has on tap, from a innovation stand point, of course innovation doesn't mean market leader. I actually think MS real competition is Google not apple, but in the creative space, MS offers the superior products by far.
  • Yes! real competition is Google not apple. MS want to beat Google.
  • Apple lost touch with its creative user base a while ago.
    I for one always tought that Microsoft was already ahead with UX and design since the Zune era, which gave birth to WP7 and then the Metro Design language. Typography, Minimalism and Flat design = Microsoft started the trend and the whole industry followed. And now MIcrosoft is showing the way forward with 3D, AR, AI, Bots, and the new hardware (Surface Studio, Dial etc..) 
  • It all started with the Mac Pro trash can release.  Since than Mac's haven been not so "Pro". They should just rename the Mac Book Pros to Mac Book Casual. 
  • I've never seen that apple iPhone announcement before. Did he really claim to have invented Multi Touch? Seriously?
  • Pretty sure, yeah
  • Steve Jobs claimed to have invented all kinds of things that were around before Apple released such a product. Apple still does this today, though they have many fewer innovations lately, so it's not as obvious. Steve Jobs did some great things in his life, but presenting without hyperbole was not one of them.
  • The company that revolutionized phone industry with touch clearly forgot to touch up its core business, the Macs.
  • I see what you did there.:-)
  • I guess they lost touch with their priorities
  • I think what Microsoft is doing in terms  of the PC is great! The only problem I have with Microsoft is that what they preview at their unveiling is not necessarily what you get when you buy it. The obvious bugs are what really kills their products for me. They knowinly ship their products with bugs. I know every product has bugs but Microsoft really needs to fix the obvious ones. One great example that I will never forget is HALO MCC. 
  • Perhaps more relevant were the bugs that effected the Surface Pro and took ages to get sorted.
  • My Surface Pro 4 handily agrees with you. I love it, but it's been many many many many months and I'm still getting bugs. Would be nice if my Bluetooth headphones connected to it like they do with every other device I own. Good thing that there's a headphone jack.
  • Apple have given up on professionals, looks like MS is ready to take them in.  However, for me, OSX beats Windows as far as graphic design goes. For example finder showing thumbnails of everything vs mix of thumbnails and document icons under Windows. You can use bridge but that doesn't help when you're opening and saving from apps. OSX is just a lot more refined.
  • I disagree with you on that, I don't use mac but I believe it depends on the way you use the OSes or apps, windows is customizable and there are lots of software that adds to the functionality of the OS, Apple softwares are always locked, they try to restrict so many aspects of them. A friend of mine used to believe that Mac is better for media work without considering the price point. A Windows device of the same price with an Apple product performs better. Rendering on a Windows machine is faster than mac of the same price. I've seen a video compare of devices from Apple and HP, the HP rendered faster than the Mac
  • That rendering might be the software. I use Vegas Video Pro and it renders quite speedily even on my aging HP.  I think some of that has to do with Apple having the only real choice for higher end video editing on Macs and Windows PCs have a bit of competition going on.
  • So you don't use it but you disagree... I'm speaking as a 2d graphic designer (and previously a long time Windows developer) who does use both.  I've no idea about mac vs windows for rendering, video etc just talking about my workflow. You know we're taling about OSX and not iOS? it's no more locked down than Windows. Show me how out of the box you get Windows to display ai and psd thumbnails in file explorer and open/save dialogs. There are other things but there's a good start. Even with sagethumbs it shows some but decides not to show others even though they were saved exactly the same.
  • I feel like touch has so much more potential than what any company is doing at all with it. I think Microsoft's swipe from the left to show all windows, swipe from the right to show notifications is great. But my android phone does that too. But what about swiping from the top, or swiping from the four corners, or the bottom (besides custom applications that don't meld well with the OS)? There's so much potential, I would love to see it used. SP4 is great, but it still feels like most windows things are mouse first, rather than designed in tandem with touch (but balance is hard, and I'm sure they will find it eventually).
    If (and more likely when) apple does touch on laptops (unless they just cancel mac OS), I will be interested to see how it works, because it probably will be a really really good implementation. Like most of their implementations (not all, but most).
  • I know a couple people in graphic design and music creation and there is nothing Microsoft could to make them ever buy a Windows product. The Surface Studio could cure cancer and they still wouldn't even consider it. I am not sure if this is widespread in these industries, but converting these "hipster" types is going to be very difficult.
  • It is very endemic.I know some designers who tried PCs and went back. The funny thing was I was asking one about how she worked around certian issues with Mac and she looked at me like she had no clue what I was talking about. Up until a few years ago Mac would show graphics with an odd texture on the screen. It was almost a ripple or a wave on the screen, with the waves being about 1/4 inch. When I asked her about those, and how she does color correctly on the Mac with the computer drawing that wave, she didn't know what I meant. The next time I saw her when she had her mac notebook with her, I pointed it out to her. The time after that she was using a PC. She said that she never saw it before, and now she couldn't get it out of her head.
  • May be she'll be interested in the Surface studio :)
  • Mac displays are best in class and perfectly calibrated. Windows displays are not.
  • That is really generalized statement. If you really care about your display being calibrated, it is hard to get done.
  • Do you realise mac is a product series brand and Microsoft is an os?
  •  MS is an OS?? So many cluless people on this site, it's sad.
  • you should read the whole conversation.
  • You may be right. Not all can be converted or even interested. That's human. Many of them, even on die hard mac websites though, are seriously considering the studio.
    I agree that one excellent product doesn't mean all creatives are converted. It took Apple years to make good reputation on them: So it's fair that a competitor would also take a long time to overcome that.
  • Ho, Ho, Ho, my dears pros! Is it any "new strategy" to commend new 'studio" workstation and its new color screen without any description about color gamut (!!!), bit control, correction and other important data? Surface Studio is not any Hoola Hoop but has serious intentions to be place of design works instead Mac. Where is complete data sheet of Studio screen?
  • Check out the MS web site for the screen info. It has everything that any creative type would need.
  • Let me guess, you are one of those people who demand the exact number of m3, i5, and i7 Surface Pro devices sold, broken down into SSD size - and when no details are given you declare Microsoft a failure and then go off with your Apple friends and pretend that Apple is winning at everything. But when Apple declares that they don't want to release the number of Apple Watches sold because they want to focus on the product, then announce how many iPhones were sold on the same day (so they don't want to focus on the product?) only to say they are not going to announce for the iPhone 7 (because of reports stagnant sales), and then wild claims of this is the best selling Mac ever with no facts or figures, you pretend that means that Apple is winning at everything. I will assume that these complaints you have, you and your Apple friends sat around trying to find something, anything, to try to find fault with the Surface Studio. I'm sorry that Microsoft didn't personally deliver the info to you like you would demand, but a quick search revealed this information: "it displays the full Adobe RGB 1998 color gamut. That’s a pretty big deal, but there’s also a quick action button that lets you toggle between Adobe RGB, sRGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts depending on what scenario you’re designing for. Oh, and it’s a 192 dpi screen with 1:1 scaling meaning that if you’ve got an 8.5 x 11″ inch document zoomed to 100% on the screen, that’s exactly the same size as it will look when you print it in real life." As for color correction, being Windows has allowed color correction for, oh, I don't know, 20 years or so, I don't think it would be a problem here.
  • Surface Studio display supports DCI-P3 & sRGB color gamuts.
  • And allows you to switch between them for times your client will be using a more restricted gamut and you want to see how it will look on their display systems.
  • Oh, and that was actually covered in the product announcement. Ho, ho, ho, yourself.
  • And that Surface Studio is not just great for image/video art creators, it is a gift from heaven for design engineers too with Ink, Ruler and more.
    Big deal, big money!
    Can I get some Microsoft shares, please!
  • Nah, most Mac develpers are not going to abandon it for Windows. After all iPhone usage share of apps is still huge and Windows Mobile is DOA.
  • 15" and 18" Surface pros would go a long way in sealing this deal for Microsoft. Creatives and Designers like the surface pro series, but many of them say it can be a little too small. Will be interesting to see if M$ does it.
  • MS really needs to keep the pace up, very very rarely will a switch happen in one generation. Especially among people who have chosen their poison and gotten used to it.
  • I've actually been thinking about it and all I can think is that Apple has some kind of agreement with Wacom not to release a touch screen laptop, or they believe it will adversely affect iPad sales. Other than that I cannot think of any possible reason NOT to get into touch.
  • I think their lack of a touch screen Mac is purely philosophical in nature.