As Apple fiddles, Microsoft reaches for Apple's discarded creative crown

Inertia, more than any other factor, now binds creative and power users to the Mac

As Apple fiddles, Microsoft reaches for Apple's discarded creative crown
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We've entered a parallel universe where Microsoft announces cool PC products for creative types and Apple focuses on obvious performance upgrades (lighter! thinner! faster! updated ports! choice of colors!) and obscure technologies like application-reprogrammable function keys for its aging Mac line.

Do we need really yet another contextual menu? Plus, like many people (especially creative users), I use my MacBook with a big monitor most of the time, so the reprogrammable-keys Touch Bar is inaccessible behind my closed laptop lid. Maybe no one at Apple uses external monitors, keyboards, and mice any more. More likely, Apple will offer a pricey new external keyboard with the Touch Bar (not that it said so today).

And, yes, the inclusion of Touch ID is quite welcome, but adding Touch ID was an obvious update three years ago when the technology came to the iPhone 5s. Still, there's nothing in the new Macs that really moves the needles that matter. Again, too bad the MacBook lid has to be open to use it.

The Apple community has been increasingly unhappy with Apple's apparent abandonment of the creative users who once powered the company's sales and product differentiation. If you worked in graphics, video, or sounds, there was no question that you used a Mac, thanks to its superior hardware and software. Now, Macs have no advantages in either hardware or software; former Mac-only apps have equally capable ports on Windows, and Windows itself has become much easier in managing the peripherals for creative users. You may still want a Mac, but you no longer need one.

Apple has slapped its loyal creative customers in the face by abandoning once-key Apple-only tools like Aperture and Final Cut and fumbling new creative apps like iBooks Author. As a result, Apple has sent a clear message: It won't lead the creative market. The company further advanced that message to all users with its torpid approach to other apps like the iWork suite, iMovie, GarageBand, iTunes, and Contacts.

In reality, inertia more than any other factor now binds creative and power users to the Mac. I can't believe I wrote that, as someone who's been firmly ensconced in the Apple universe since the Windows Vista debacle. But it's true.

Creative users are by no means the mass market, but they are the segment that inspires everything else. They push the computational and UI limits for vendors, and they provide the cool factor that makes a PC feel like much more than a glorified typewriter.

Apple still prices its Macs as if they were special. Yes, their quality is better than that of most PCs, and that's worth a premium, but the Mac hasn't moved the needle for years in functionality. If anything, Mac technology has become more generic and PC-like, making you wonder why you should spend $2,500 for a top-end MacBook that seems to do no more, and often less, than a top-end PC laptop, which costs $750 to $1,000 less. The price difference is now more than the premium difference.

I know I wonder -- and as a result I still have a 2013 MacBook Pro at work. I couldn't justify spending my company's money on the 2016 model simply because we're allowed an upgrade every three years. The MacBooks announced today don't change that calculation. Yes, Touch ID is a great security addition, one I've advocated, but it's not ultimately a game-changer.

I'm holding on to my Macs for many years because there's no reason not to. (The same is true for my iPads and, increasingly, my iPhone.) For example, my home Mac is a 2014 iMac, which replaced a 2011 MacBook Pro and its now-discontinued Thunderbolt Display. I was (correctly) nervous about that great display's future, and the iMac gave me even better screen quality with the same built-in peripherals hub capability that should hold me for years to come. There's been no reason to replace a Mac more than every four or five years. I'm holding onto iPads and iPhones for three years or so as well.

In the meantime, Microsoft has been focusing on its Surface Pro's marketing squarely on creative users, highlighting the ability to draw on its touchscreen. A PC for drawing? That's a new one. And yesterday Microsoft announced the Surface Studio, an iMac-like PC that has a touchscreen for drawing -- one that can be turned into a horizontal drawing surface. I may never need such a device, but it's the kind of cool Apple used to do. Now it's coming from Microsoft, whose native Windows apps have been the opposite of awesome: clunky, inconsistent, crippled, and never hip.

Yes, Microsoft's hardware has had a seemingly unending series of driver problems and update bugs. Microsoft is not yet at Apple's quality level. But it's getting closer. For most people, it's close enough to consider abandoning the Mac.

After all, what do you have to lose? Sadly, not as much as you might think.

Yes, MacOS is a better OS than Windows 10, but Windows 10 is now good, and you can easily adjust to it if you must. It's not like you're being forced to use Windows 8 or DOS.

Apple's iCloud, Continuity, and Handoff technologies help Apple devices work together amazingly easily, and giving up that automatic federation across devices is the biggest loss if you switch to a Windows PC. Apple's ecosystem is designed to work together, which Windows, Android, Chrome OS, and Linux can't duplicate.

Windows 10 does some of the same ecosystem services but not enough -- it would need to drive similar technology into Android to equal Apple's level of cross-device integration, a move Google would likely fight, given its interest in putting its own information-gleaning federation technology at the center of our lives. But a lot of people don't use these Apple ecosystem technologies, so the loss won't be so apparent.

Still, for creative and power users, these proprietary Apple services have been a powerful incentive to stick with Apple proprietary hardware -- but only as long as Apple's hardware is highly compelling. By themselves, these services are beginning to feel more like a fence to keep us locked in than a platform on which to do more. They become a trap, not a benefit.

I don't imagine longtime Mac users jettisoning their iMacs to get a Surface Studio when it's released -- or their MacBook Pro to get a new Surface Pro. But when it's time to replace that Mac, I suspect most will no longer automatically go to the Apple Store for a new computer. A PC will be on their list of computers to check out and likely even buy.

Microsoft is squarely aiming at creative and power users -- the key market influencers -- with products they should consider, treating PCs with the same level of aspiration and quality we've long associated to the Mac. The PC market really needs that, so kudos to Microsoft. Its actions are especially impressive given its shift to the cloud and Office 365. Microsoft doesn't need the PC to succeed, but it's trying to revitalize it anyhow in the style of Steve Jobs's Apple.

Meanwhile, Apple seems to have taken its users for granted -- a big mistake -- with pro forma or navel-gazing upgrades. The last time Apple did this, in the mid-1990s, it nearly died. Back then, Steve Jobs forced a radical redesign of the Mac, launched the iPod, and later the iPhone to change the game. Today, we have the Apple Watch. Uh oh.

If Apple has a different future in mind, an iPod-style switch for today, it had better reveal it soon. If not, it shouldn't cede hardware leadership to Microsoft.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.