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Appletizing Microsoft: All You Need Is Love

By Chris Maxcer
Oct 19, 2015 10:25 AM PT
surface-book

The question that's been bugging me lately is this: Why hasn't Microsoft managed to break through with mobile consumer devices? While Apple has been breaking into the enterprise through consumer demand, Microsoft's enterprise tradition hasn't been helping with consumers. Case in point? Windows Phones.

Meanwhile, why do I care? After all, I'm an Apple product enthusiast. Microsoft could make a Surface Book that also baked little loaves of fresh hot bread, but I still wouldn't buy one. Yet the company is starting to produce some interesting products. More to the point, these products seem like they should take off -- but overall success has been limited to the glow of the Surface Pro 3, which Microsoft just upgraded to the new and forthcoming Surface Pro 4.

Plus, Microsoft has been taking pages out of Apple's playbook (I know, it goes both ways), like producing an operating system as well as manufacturing the hardware -- and the company even opened up a bunch of its own retail stores (which may not be doing well at all with consumers, as noted by this gleeful pro-Apple, unscientific report).

Microsoft isn't giving up, though. It made another bold new move this month when it introduced its own "laptop," the Surface Book. The Surface Book not only has a great and simple name, but also comes with an interesting new hinge that lets you use it as a high-powered laptop as well as a tablet.

It looks good.

The Right Idea

If Apple created its own take on this form factor, I'd likely buy it -- except that's not really possible right now. Why? Apple's iOS and Mac OS X, while being nicely integrated, are two distinct operating systems. You don't touch the screen on your Mac, and all the apps for both run on one or the other. Sure, different versions of your apps can share data and settings, and you can use Apple's Continuity feature to move your work experience from one device to another with the power of iCloud. It functions pretty well, but it means that you'll have to buy multiple Apple devices.

Windows 10, on the other hand, has the potential to be a more flexible operating system -- one OS to rule them all, right? Microsoft's OS approach is fundamentally different, and that gives it a nice edge to entice consumers.

Trouble is, there are many more factors that have held Microsoft back -- marketing, a reliance on an enterprise customer base, hardware partnerships, Ballmer, Windows, and the company's own culture, just for starters. Yet some of these same weaknesses also have allowed the admittedly diverse company to survive and thrive.

Right now, Microsoft's device successes are relatively small. Windows Phones aren't all that bad, and some are pretty darn good with excellent design. For now, though, Microsoft has restricted its channel for the newly announced Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. This move prompted BGR to post a missive with a title that gets right to the point, "Does Microsoft even want people to buy Windows Phones anymore?"

At the same time, I've got to say that Microsoft is ahead of Apple in recognizing that your smartphone is a little computer that could be much more powerful with the addition of a few accessories. Here's what I'm getting at: You will be able to connect your new Lumia Phones to a Microsoft Display Dock to use it with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. This is fairly simple and a cool way to exploit the power inside your smartphone. It boasts 1080p HD output at 60 FPS and uses the new USB-C port, which can charge your phone while you work or catch up on email.

Many people already have transitioned the vast majority of their "computing" work to their smartphones. Much of what's left easily could be handled through the wicked power of Apple's own iOS-based processors -- and make no mistake about it, Apple's A9 chip and processor team are on fire.

Still, Apple is a long way from suggesting that your next iPhone could be your next workhorse computer, too... even though Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, in a rare interview, just said that "you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line."

With this world view, your Apple Watch would do some of the work of your iPhone, and your iPhone would take over some of the work from your iPad. The iPad Pro even could do the work of a notebook -- so Apple makes the screen a bit bigger and gives it a keyboard and better multitasking. Makes sense. You know what else makes sense? You give the smartphone a screen, keyboard and input device, and let its processor handle even more work for you.

Except Apple is not doing this; Microsoft is.

Of course, savvy Apple fans might be thinking you can do this sort of thing already, right? Kind of. You can AirPlay your screen to an Apple TV-connected HDTV. Next, you need a Bluetooth keyboard, connected to your iPhone. Easy enough. Next, you're going to need to tap and touch your iPhone a lot to navigate. You can do some stuff through the keyboard, but you have to be a pretty smart keyboard user -- not a kid and not a casual user.

Unfortunately, there still isn't a good way to point to or select content with the same sort of efficiency you can get through a mouse or trackpad. So serious work is compromised with limitations that you would think Apple could overcome if it wanted to. Or at the very least come up with a touch-friendly docking system. Either way, the core limitation for getting simple work done this way is the ability to interact with an iOS device without touching the iOS device screen itself. So using your iPhone as a computer with a big-screen interface isn't very good.

From Microsoft, what you end up with is portable PC power with the ability to plug into a sweet workstation, whether at home in your kitchen/office/homework area... or in a business environment. Microsoft is already here, and the only downside speaks directly to why Microsoft is struggling: the details.

The Devil's Abode

Microsoft's Display Dock looks like something a skinny kid cobbled together with parts salvaged from a Radio Shack going-out-of-business sale.

The Display Dock is the opposite of elegant. Functional? Looks like it -- but that's not enough. It should be a work of art. It should look good sitting on your desk. Microsoft should have built the thing directly into its own elegant line of displays, and offered the adapter experience for those who weren't enticed by the seamless product design.

The Microsoft Display Dock is an opportunity to spark imagination, to help consumers and workers reimagine their computing experience, to give Microsoft's OS and Office and entire system an edge... but instead, Microsoft's marketing materials screw up the details. "Leave your laptop at work," is a great message, for example, but then one photo shows the USB-C cable with three sharper bends rather than a smooth curve.

Think this stuff doesn't matter? No way Apple would let that image fly. If there even were a cord, it would have a balanced curve. Humans are a sight-based species. The details add up. Never mind the mess of cords snaking out the backside in Microsoft's images. One image shows three with one coming out the front. It's functional, but it lacks imagination, inspiration, or even a design that your eye can appreciate.

Apple does the opposite. Consider its WiFi router, which is a device that most people set up and tuck out of the way. Apple creates a well-designed shell to hide the antennas and half-dozen lights and vents. It all adds up to consumer impressions about quality and care, and elevating every product so that it's the best thing it can be.

What I'm seeing is that Microsoft's execution of the Display Dock will limit its adoption. Worse, its execution will not spark imagination and introduce lust. It won't incrementally build Microsoft's cool factor, which is what every product should be doing. I can easily imagine a TV ad that shows a teenager coming home from school and getting to work, that shows a person settling into their desk at work, plugging in their Windows Phone... the future is now.

The point is that the device should promise to simplify your life. The next-generation Display Dock should be wireless, right? With a built-in dock for wireless charging. It should have no more than one cable. Sure, it's never that easy, but damn, that's one thing that people respond to -- especially if it looks like it was crafted with care and that the people who made it are obviously proud of it. What's worse is that all of this might already be possible with a Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, a mouse, and mobile keyboard -- but good luck finding more than a handful of consumers who could puzzle it together through Microsoft's own website.

Heck, Apple's accessory design team just admitted that it struggled over the sound of the new Magic Mouse 2, which looks and functions just like the previous version -- with the exception of a built-in battery. That's obsession over detail, and if Apple has proven anything, it's proven that the little things matter.

Microsoft's next play could be creating a simple laptop form factor shell that just supports the brains inside its smartphones. That isn't a new idea, but Microsoft could deliver it. Suddenly Microsoft would be a company that makes people rethink and reimagine how they use computers.

Look, I think Apple eventually will get there, but Apple will sell millions of discrete devices first, wringing every last drop out of the market while simultaneously building rapport with customers and developers through the creation of a more holistic ecosystem. It's a slow march, paved with money. Sometimes, it's a bit boring, which is why I care about Microsoft Surface and the company's ability to be a worthy competitor -- which in turn, pushes companies like Apple to dare more frequently.

Back to Microsoft. The company actually produces many similar core products: the Microsoft Surface line of tablet/PCs; Lumia smartphones; the Microsoft Band. Microsoft even has Cortana, a virtual personal assistant. The company has an app store, plus a full-fledged living room gaming device and ecosystem that also lets you play movies, TV shows and music -- the Xbox lineup. There's more, though: Microsoft has hardware partners building their own devices that use their software, which has proven to be a pro and a con at the exact same time.

What else? The company is working on -- and willing to share its excitement for -- newer technologies and devices like Microsoft HoloLens, which promises to make virtual reality gaming (at the very least) downright amazing again. Plus, all sorts of Microsoft business software is deeply integrated into businesses around the world.

Microsoft has most of the puzzle pieces sitting on a big table, right, but somehow the company's relevance to everyday consumers is limited. And to youngsters? Aside from the Xbox, the company might as well have cooties.

It's Not Business - It's Personal

You could argue that every element of Microsoft's varied ecosystem needs to be executed and articulated just a little bit better.

That might work, but I think the issue is harder to pin down.

I think the issue is a misalignment with people these days.

Microsoft's identity is not connecting to my identity -- not connecting to our identities. It's trying, but it's always just a little bit off.

Take, for example, this Surface Book video ad, which is almost good, almost stirring, but also somehow boring and disconnected. For instance, who throws brightly colored paint at stuff to free their artistic souls anymore? Come on. Miss. Anyway, check it out and try to put your finger on what's faintly annoying about it:

There is a lot more, though -- Microsoft's device and software ecosystem is an incredibly complicated issue, full of mini issues. Here's another: Microsoft now calls its devices "the most productive devices on the planet." That's sort of a good message for business, but what about humans? The worker bees already feel like they're productive, already feel like they are working their asses off. A better message is about tapping into their hearts, about making their lives simpler, easier, more fun.

"Be a titan of business!" Microsoft's ad says. Come on.

So, how do you get regular consumers to look at the Surface Book as anything more than an interesting tool? That's the question. While we're here, don't confuse the issue by saying Microsoft is aiming the Surface Book at high-end professionals -- Microsoft needs regular consumers to lust after the Surface Book even if they can't afford it or don't need its power.

The answer, in part, is to make sure the Surface Book isn't isolated in the Microsoft lineup. The Surface Book doesn't have a big Microsoft logo on the front of it, and the cover has a sweet Windows graphic. It's deliciously understated. That's fantastic.

The Surface line is just one product that Microsoft is getting right, though. The company has to get them all right. When I look at the new Lumia 950 XL, I'm thinking, "OK, its got a pretty sweet design. Even some nice button placement for camera usage... but what gives?" Something is just a bit off.

Turns out John Gruber of Daring Fireball nailed it: "Why put that glaring, obnoxious 'Microsoft' on the front face? Nobody wants to see that. Nobody. This is one of the things Apple does that everyone should copy but few do."

Microsoft needs a smooth ecosystem of products that are all connected with the same principles and demands of elevated design.

Because each tiny little element matters.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com or check out @WickedCoolBite on Twitter.


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