Something funny is happening in the age-old battle of Apple versus Microsoft.
Each is trying to get its products to be more like the other’s, but taking a different route to get there.
In one corner, there’s Apple. With the iOS App Store, Apple already boasts the premiere destination for app developers on the planet. But with a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, and the new iOS 11 coming this fall, Apple is building features that make its tablets work a lot more like Macs or Windows PC’s.
In the other corner you have Microsoft, which has spent the last half-decade building its Surface lineup of touchscreen-enabled computers into serious Mac competitors and now seems to be aiming at the iPad. With its newest Windows 10 S operating system, Microsoft is attempting to make some of its Surface devices act more like the iPad and is betting it can grow the Windows Store into a serious rival to the iPhone and iPad App Store.
Both companies want the same thing: To be the platform of choice for people trying to be creative and get work done, even as the very definition of “computer” grows increasingly fluid. But the end result is that we’re in a weird situation where Microsoft is trying to make Windows work more like Apple iOS, while Apple tries to make iOS work more like Windows.
The race is on to see which can complete its transition first.
Apple trying to be Microsoft
Apple has said time and again that it sees the iPad as the future of computing. The iconic tablet is thin and light. It sports Apple’s famous high-quality touchscreen technology. And it strikes a great balance between battery life and performance. When the big-screen iPad Pro launched in 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook pitched it as a laptop replacement.
In a real way, Apple’s bet on the iPad is a bet on the App Store. Compared with traditional software, apps are easier for customers to update and more secure to use. For developers, the App Store handles payments and provides a central place for customers to find their wares. And for Apple, the 30%-ish cut it takes of every transaction is a huge plus.
Apple’s focus on the iPad as its future may explain the company’s reticence to build a full-touchscreen Mac. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software engineering, signaled that the company sees the iPad as something between the phone and the Mac, with many of the best attributes of both.
The problem with the iPad functioning as a laptop replacement is the iOS operating system isn’t great for getting stuff done. Compared with a Mac or a PC, multitasking on an iPad is tricky and transferring files between apps is a pain. And most work apps for iOS are simplified, less capable versions of their desktop PC equivalents. This gap between Apple’s aspirations for the iPad and reality has hindered the company’s efforts to turn the tablet into a serious work machine and played a part in falling sales.
With the forthcoming iOS 11, Apple is taking some big steps to plug that gap. Among other new features, the updated operating system will include an application dock and a new file system, and users will be able to drag-and-drop pictures and text between apps.
The new features are more than a little reminiscent of those in Microsoft’s unloved Windows 8 —as some Microsoft fans duly noted. Of course, the whole notion of a “tablet that can replace your laptop” was pioneered by Microsoft itself with its Surface in 2012.
It’s pretty clear why Apple wants to make the iPad work more like a PC. It’s betting that adding PC-like features will sell more iPads, attracting customers who want all of the benefits of a tablet with all the flexibility of a full PC. With a broader customer base, Apple hoping to convince developers to build robust work apps that will make the iPad a more credible productivity device.
Microsoft trying to be Apple
Microsoft, meanwhile, has been embracing an Apple-like strategy. With its Surface lineup, which includes a laptop-tablet hybrid in the Surface Pro, a high-end laptop with the Surface Book, an all-in-one PC with the Surface Studio, and a forthcoming student-targeted computer in the Surface Laptop, the company is integrating its software with its own, premium hardware.
Microsoft’s biggest advantage is the iPad’s Achilles heel. The Surface devices, except for the Surface laptop, ship with a full version of Windows 10 and offer users access to full desktop programs. Owners can use the version of Office they already have, as well as the desktop version of the Google Chrome browser, the Steam game store, and more.
Conversely, Microsoft’s weakness is Apple’s strength. Windows Store has a much smaller selection than Apple’s App Store, so Surface users don’t have access to many familiar smartphone and tablet apps. With the PC market shrinking and the smartphone market only growing, more and more programmers are developing apps for the iPhone and Android instead of Windows.
Microsoft is trying to address this shortcoming. Windows 10 S, a streamlined new version of its operating system that will premiere on the Surface Laptop, will only use apps from the Windows Store. Microsoft says that will mean big boosts to battery life and performance, but the trade-off is users won’t be able to install old-style Windows apps including Chrome and Steam.
The company is pitching Windows 10 S at students, so if developers want to reach that audience, they’ll have to commit to making apps for Windows Store. Microsoft has already convinced Apple, which is bringing iTunes to Microsoft’s app marketplace later this year.
But it’s clear that as Apple and Microsoft both attempt to blur the lines between laptops and tablet, they’re each trying copy each other’s strengths to minimize their own weaknesses. Ultimately, as the PC gets closer to an iPad and the iPad gets closer to a PC, we’re going to have to check our assumptions of what we want and need from our computers.