AMITIAE - Thursday 15 October 2015

Cassandra: Two Roads Diverging - Desktop and Tablet Strategies from Microsoft and Apple

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


    • Sales of PCs and other computing devices have declined in recent months

    • The arrival of the Surface Book is seen by some as a challenge to Apple

    • Cupertino and Redmond have different strategies when it comes to PC and tablet devices

iPad Pro A few weeks ago, Apple released its iPad Pro: a long-anticipated larger version of its tablet devices, that some felt seemed to stray into Microsoft Surface territory. And then Microsoft released a new Surface Book, which added to its philosophy about what a tablet computer should be.

In my opinion Microsoft has this wrong: not because I like Apple (I do, but Apple can make mistakes). The whole ethos of a tablet device is subverted by Microsoft's direction here. For years, PC makers have tried to make a success of the tablet form, and have consistently failed with the larger PC-based devices produced. Weight only being one of the factors.

When Apple produced the iPad, which some believed was an evolution of its iPhone, even though the iPad was thought of first, it was immediately successful, for some of the reasons that the PC-based devices had not been: light, intuitive, no keyboard, with a good selection of apps available at the outset. Once the iPad was out of the door, a number of similar devices from other manufacturers - based on the Android OS - also appeared and sales for some of these appeared to be good. There were also the dodos, like the ASUS Padfone (for some reason autocorrect keeps changing that to "payphone"): some fail to understand that gimmicks may not be strong selling points.

On paper the Surface Book looks fine and its initial run has sold well. However, there are a couple of potential weak points, such as the fulcrum hinge which (if I looked at the video right) has upwards of 6 moving parts (the MacBook Pro I am using now has 1) and may prove to be an Achilles Heel with much use. With a detachable keyboard - another potential weak point with over-use - it tries to be notebook and tablet at the same time. Remember the selling point of the Surface was that it was designed to work with a keyboard.

Microsoft Surface Book

If the Surface Book with its 13.5-inch screen is designed to compete with the MacBook Pro, its starting price is slightly higher than the base 13" Apple device, but the same as the 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 MacBook Pro. The Surface Book specifications (and ordering page) do not show the speed of the processor, only i5 or i7.

Nonetheless, on the design and given specifications it does seem a worthy competitor to the Apple products and perhaps Microsoft has taken on board one lesson that Apple has been teaching for years. The best results come when hardware and software are integrated and controlled by the manufacturer: something Android installations may never see.

Apps have been the key to the iPad and to the iPhone. As Phil Schiller said in a video produced by Apple earlier this year, the apps that have been developed exceeded anything Apple had originally imagined. Despite reports of falling sales, these are immensely popular and widely-used devices.

Microsoft on the other hand saw the Surface as an extension of its desktop offerings, providing a keyboard and desktop class applications. The original versions of the device had little space left for apps or data once the operating system was installed, unlike the lighter iOS.

Here again, the operating system itself shows a marked difference in the philosophies of the two rivals: what became iOS was initially pitched as a version of OS X by Steve Jobs when the iPhone was introduced in January 2007. Now at version 9, it bears little resemblance to OS X, although certain features have been borrowed, leading some to speculate that the two operating systems will merge. That idea was killed recently when Tim Cook was asked about this by Aaron Levie and dismissing the idea, said, "it subtracts from both."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph this week, James Titcomb suggests that Microsoft released its new Surface Book, because it had to. PC sales are declining and this is a vote of confidence from Redmond. If there is no PC - apart from its ventures in the handheld device markets - there is no Microsoft: the cash cow of Windows is leaner these days; and Office may also not be as profitable as it once was.

Many commentators, including Titcomb in this article, presume that the PC is on its last legs; and that the tablet and smartphones are now taking the lion's share of the market. This is supported in some way by Microsoft embracing apps for iOS and Android devices; along with a cloud-centered approach that links to an annual fee. Others such as Adobe are also seeing this as a way to improve capital flow: the subscriptions guarantee income, while users are fed regular updates. It also goes some way to combatting software piracy: long a problem for software developers.

Falling sales may be due to other factors. Those suggesting tablets as a reason, omit the glee which others show when they tell us that tablet sales (the iPad) are also falling. With only smartphones left, a more likely reason for reduced sales of PCs (including notebook computers) and tablets, is that users - particularly companies - are holding on to them longer and making considerable savings in this way. We should also be aware that unit sales may not be the best guide to a company's income, or profits: a significant consideration especially with Apple.

iMac Another company that has come to understand the current market is Dell, once the poster child for the PC revolution. Don Reisinger in Fortune, notes that Dell recognizes Apple's quality model was more successful than higher unit sales and that the company has shifted its strategy to embrace high-end computers to make the 3rd place computer vendor, "cool again."

In the article, Dell's Frank Azor significantly places a major shift in the computer industry at 2006. That may not be a coincidence: it is when Apple changed from using Power PC processors to Intel. Macs can boot up in OS X, Windows and can run Linux.

Despite the recent declines in PC sales (around 7% this year), not only has Redmond produced a new device with the Surface Book, but Apple updated its entire iMac line this week: two clear votes of confidence for the genre. Why are the two major players still willing to invest in a declining market?

If the PC market is declining, do alternatives exist?

What may be happening with the PC market is an evolution. When the iPad was released in 2010, Steve Jobs stated that most of Apple's sales came from portable computers. That did not stop Cupertino coming out with the new Mac Pro a couple of years later; nor with continued releases of the iMac and the understated Mac mini.

As well as the Mac Book Air (2008) the MacBook Pro range has continued to evolve. Many remarkably similar devices, running Windows and Chrome OS, have also appeared. Apple also released a new MacBook this year, which appears to compete with its own MacBook Air, although with its new technologies - including some borrowed from iOS devices - this performs somewhat better than that earlier device.

Notebook computers or tablets, however, are not suitable for the office environment. Customers and management expect to see computer monitors on desks almost because the alternative does not suggest productivity. That many staff are using social networking sites or playing games while ostensibly working, is immaterial. If staff were seen with notebook computers, or even worse, iPads (or alternatives) that would suggest a frivolity that is at odds with the workplace. A desktop computer solution is likely to remain for the foreseeable future if only for the sake of appearances.

What cannot be seen, however, is the technical specifications: the insides of those computers. While many are moving on to more and faster memory modules, as well as solid state drives (SSD) particularly in mobile computing, these innovations are taking a while to trickle down to the work environment, in part because of cost, but also the lack of information that CIOs need in order to make purchasing decisions.

It is the Pro areas (in which Apple has up to now done so well) that the computer will also remain for now. Processing of the data when making movies or handling large numbers of photographs, is better suited to a desktop computer. Some notebook computers (perhaps with external storage media) may also be suitable for some of these tasks; but professional work is totally unsuited to tablet computers.

As part of my examination of this question I asked myself, "Can I do without a computer?" I doubt it. I have tried. With the use of iOS devices for taking photographs and cloud computing, there is a grey area: perhaps. When I use a DSLR camera, I am done for, even as an amateur. With around 400 GB of digital images stored on external media, the only way I might access all that data would be via cloud storage and the costs would be prohibitive. Unless users are in major cities, cloud access may be unreliable.

I can write on a handheld device. Part of this article was created on an iPhone using iA Writer, which synchronises via iCloud: the text is available on all my devices. I can create, edit and manipulate images. I can manage my website directly from the iPhone or iPad, up to a point. I do have problems with printing due to the way my office is set up (but a dedicated printer and a suitable app could solve that).

Even now I am investing in new software, although the bulk of my downloads are usually for iOS devices. The same is perhaps true for those who use Android devices: the variety of apps available for the handheld devices makes it interesting to examine new versions. This is how it was when the PC first arrived in the late 1980s when those early machines had to be coaxed into productivity.

There are also the cultural or psychological factors to be considered: some can work quite happily in a tablet-only environment, some cannot. I would certainly include myself in the latter group: the iPad and iPhones I have are devices used in support of my computers. I know a number of users, however, who only use iPads: two, for example, who each use nothing but an iPad mini.

For some, this type of device is all they have ever used, perhaps previously being deterred from using a PC because of the complexities and the confusing help that many self-elected experts offer: obfuscating with technical terms and presumptions. For these, the ease of use that the tablet offered was like scales being lifted from their eyes. A useful way to imagine this is to look at children of 2-4 years old (or senior citizens), who have never been exposed to computers, and watch them quickly understand how the device works: it gets to the essence of what they want to accomplish.

It is also worth noting that the arrival of new smartphones each year often causes most users to upgrade (with the passing down of the previous year's model to friends, family or sale to dealers). Those who use iPads are less likely to change the instant a new model appears. The iPad owner may hold on to the model for 2 or more years before upgrading. This may be why sales appear slow. The market is growing but has slowed from the original rush.


I do not believe that the computer industry is about to stop making desktop PCs. There is no viable alternative on the horizon that will satisfy business (large and small) or many home users. Professional users (photographers, movie-makers) will also need high end devices for the foreseeable future, and these will (like business) require adequate storage even if some data is shifted to cloud solutions: a single backup or backup method is never wise.

Apple approaches devices and operating systems on two levels: an industrial strength (UNIX-based) OS X for desktops and notebook computers; with iOS, initially based on OS X, tailored specifically for the handheld devices. While there has been some merging of hardware features (e.g. Force Touch) and certain software elements (such as Delete in Mail), the two are unlikely to be merged, even if some A9 or (more likely A10) processors are considered suitable for Macs. I do not agree entirely with the views of J. M. Manness on this point. Such a device has been suggested since the early A-series processors, but Apple does not always follow what users want.

On the other hand, Microsoft seems to have adopted a one-size fits all strategy. The current Windows 10 is ideal for the PC, but making this work on the Surface and Surface Book means that these devices are little more than scaled down PCs. That may not be ideal for all segments of the markets Microsoft is aiming at. While it may work well for business-oriented installations, the home user, or more particularly the casual user for whom the tablet should be an ideal choice, may be deterred by the overheads - hardware requirements, learning - that a full-scale operating system requires, when their needs are far simpler.

Neither Microsoft nor Apple are likely to abandon the PC market, at least for the next 10 years (I am hedging my bets here in case some new technology appears). Apple will continue to produce its range of quality desktop and notebook computers at relatively high prices. It is good to see Microsoft developing its own hardware (Surface and Surface Book) and this too will sell although the markets it is aiming at, and the strategy of all OS eggs in one basket, may not appeal to a wide audience. Microsoft will still need companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo and others to carry the weight, so that the software continues to sell.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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