“Pro.” “Creative.” They’re words that are repeated so often in computing it’s easy for some people to forget what they mean.
By definition, though, if a “professional” is getting paid for their work, investing in more power to get their work done has a return on investment. And being “creative” on a machine means pushing it to the limits of expression. This may be the post-PC era after all, but that ought to mean we get computers that focus ever more on those use cases.
Remember Jobs’ infamous quote about trucks? Embedded in his thinking was an answer to what the traditional computer would look like in the era of ever-smarter mobile devices. It would get more specialized – more focused on niches who had more demanding needs. And given Jobs’ own history (including some of his failures, as at NeXT and with Pixar’s abortive hardware entry), he was intensely interested in how to serve those kinds of people.
Last week’s coinciding Apple and Microsoft events made a study in contrast.
Apple wasn’t remarkable so much as it was business as usual. Apple delivers a new generation of its machines. It’s faster, it’s lighter, it’s thinner. It isn’t cheaper. If all you wanted was a new MacBook Pro and for it to be faster, lighter, and thinner, then you probably wound up happy.
The difference last week, though, was that Microsoft was talking about real creative and professional applications. And – surprise! – for once, it had more to say about that than Apple.
Microsoft did have its usual sprawling event. And as is often the case at Microsoft events, some of the interesting things they showed aren’t out yet. (Apple under Cook, as under Jobs, focuses strictly on the products they’re making available.)
But the reason I think Microsoft made a compelling case was that they offered some products that represent new ideas. And they gave pro users some things those customers really want.
There are two trends happening. Microsoft is on them, I think they’re meaningful to our market segment, and Apple is clearly choosing not to pursue them.
And that’s making devices that are more touchable and tangible, and more three-dimensional and immersive.
Desktop touch is finally a thing
One focus is clearly on input.
Surface Studio is a pretty niche product, but it certainly seams to speak to visual artists. I’m also intrigued by how it might work as a studio music machine. As on the Surface Book, Microsoft opts for a 3:2 aspect ratio. But it’s a product you might well expect to come from Apple – a new form factor for desktop computers, and perhaps a new class of computer. It’s expensive as hell – US$2999 is the base model. On the other hand, I think it makes a compelling case for its existence in a way the Mac Pro didn’t. You spend more cash, you get this enormous display with touch and pen input.
Surface Dial is a physical knob, somewhat reminiscent of the Griffin PowerMate if anyone remembers that. It’s a haptic input device, with clever added functions if you touch it to the Surface models. (Surface Studio only initially, though it seems they’re possibly bringing to other models later.) And it’s already got app support.
Surface Studio may be more important than it initially appears, too. By giving you such an enormous display, Microsoft also lends justification to adding touch to Windows. It’s tough for a 10″ tablet running Windows 10 to face off against iOS, with interface paradigms built from the ground up for touch. But on a larger display, touch in almost any app becomes more appealing.
And Surface Studio you can think of as literally a canvas for developers. I don’t doubt for a second developers are going to be excitedly buying this thing – I know a few who are. That includes in our music segment. This is why Microsoft’s new hardware strategy ultimately benefits OEMs. It solves the chicken and egg problem of needing new hardware to get new apps to get new hardware.
Google may have an awkward relationship with its OEM phone and tablet makers. But we’re talking Microsoft here – this is the company that invented this ecosystem model. They’ve been building up relationships with hardware makers since the Reagan Administration.
Surface Studio on its own I think really isn’t competitive with the iPad Pro and Pencil. Those are terrific products, Apple Pencil performs beautifully, and because these are mobile devices, some people will get them subsidized by their mobile provider.
But there’s still a story here. Apple’s iOS updates aren’t necessarily in sync with what music developers want. And there’s strong incentive for music developers who sell products for $300, $400, and $500 to stay on desktop operating systems. (Why would Ableton start selling Ableton Live for $19.95?)
What the desktop ecosystem lacked was a flagship. Surface Studio is that flagship. And it’s a prime target for developer expense accounts to start looking at the platform.
It’s still going to be an uphill slog. Windows’ UI is still stuck in the desktop era, and the apps aren’t there yet. But if you want to create a new category seemingly out of thin air, you need an exciting device, which is what Microsoft pulled off. Just ask Apple how important that is.
Take a look at this video, though. While Apple had you tapping emoticons on a function row touchscreen and adjusting sliders and attempting to DJ with the top of the keyboard, Microsoft had a compelling demo with an enormous screen and serious third-party applications. And, oh yeah – actual users and use cases, not just marketing executives showing canned demos.
Entering the third dimension
Knob, touch, and (finally) usable stylus input all represent the expressive, tactile input side of the equation.
The other side of this is the full embrace for three-dimensional graphics paradigms, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
I’m wary of the hype around some of these issues. Consumer electronics makers usually try to create demand for things that allow them to sell more hardware. So they see VR as a cash cow: you’ve got a buy a new computer, with a new more powerful graphics card, with some headsets. VR seems all too easy as the sky-high pricey salvation of the sagging PC industry.
Taking the long view historically, though, there’s something there. For decades, almost all computing has been done in two dimensions, outside of games. And it took a long time for even that paradigm to take hold: early graphics in the 60s, XEROX PARC in the 70s, the Mac in the 80s, Windows only going mainstream in the 90s.
Our brains can think in three dimensions, and computing has been about nothing if not feeding our brain with familiar stimuli. Art technique has worked with tricks of virtual perspective for centuries. It seems the computer is due to catch up.
So this isn’t just about donning silly-looking goggles. Microsoft I thought had a really compelling view of 3D end to end. It’s capture of 3D data on phones. It’s their innovative new paint program. It’s full support for 3D information integrated in the Windows update coming early next year. (The sand castle was an elegant example.)
Watching this video brought back memories from me of using the Mac for the first time, and first seeing two-dimensional graphics in Apple’s ground-breaking HyperCard and paint apps (thanks, Bill Atkinson). Of course, now I think Bill’s legacy is alive at Microsoft. (Bill is a personal hero of mine; I was fortunate to meet him once at Macworld, where he was touting his exploration of advanced photography of cross sections of rocks – seriously.)
Now – I’m sure Paint 3D isn’t right for every task. But it also makes a compelling case for touch and pen input on Windows, something available on iOS but absent on the Mac. And I’m sure that’s the point.
The capture capability – being able to form 3D models just by pointing your phone at an object – is simply insane.
Really hoping these apps use standard 3D file formats.
Virtual reality is what we often think of, the solitary experience of a virtual world blocking out the real world around you. But people in fields from architecture to industrial design have long contended with 3D. I think Microsoft’s aim to bring this stuff to the masses is admirable. That can be about augmented reality (as with their HoloLens) and 3D information in general.
While Apple was investing in smart watches and TV, Microsoft was making “holographic” technology an entire platform pillar. I hate the misuse of the word “holographic,” but the platform is cool – and while HoloLens is a hugely pricey research project for now, consumer products around both augmented and virtual reality are imminent.
I’m simplifying here, intentionally, because the VR landscape gets … messy. There’s some nice analysis on The Verge.
Microsoft’s other competition is clearly mobile-focused vendors entering this arena. Their 3D capture app was running on a Windows phone, but the implication was that it’d come to iOS.
No matter. Desktop computers are the ones with advanced 3D graphics. And even with mobile catching on, a platform with good 3D support could well become the authoring platform. Just as Apple’s iOS App Store drove purchases of Macs for development, so too could this tech stimulate the PC as a 3D creation tool for people who hadn’t even thought of themselves being in the 3D creation business until now.
And the rest of the PC ecosystem
I don’t think you have to be donning a VR helmet or drawing a web comic on a Surface Studio. Last week was a week to reconsider Windows regardless. The Microsoft announcements, whether they were relevant or not, just added to great theatrics.
And what music and and creators were discovering was that some of the things we’ve been putting up with on the Mac aren’t so with Windows. So while Microsoft’s Surface line is very premium, in line with Apple’s price points, there are other options.
The Surface Book and Surface Studio themselves offer added expressive features missing on the comparable MacBook Pro and iMac, respectively. But after that, it gets more interesting. Pay the same, but get a desktop class graphics card and loads of ports – no adapters needed. Pay less and get faster graphics and more ports. Get machines with extra power – even at the cost of battery life and heat, but if you so choose to fit your needs. Get matte displays and other options.
Some of this equation really is new. After years of a race to the bottom, PC vendors finally looked at Apple’s offering and their own collapsing profits and reevaluated the industrial design of PC laptops. The post-PC era has had an unexpected side effect: it’s pushed PC makers to make more advanced, high-end laptops, including for the creative segment.
In other words, instead of laptops going away or merging with mobile devices, some have become more like Apple. Only unlike Apple, these devices typically add new buses and connectors (like Thunderbolt and USB-C), rather than take away the old ones (HDMI, legacy USB, SD card, and so on).
Leaving that MBP behind isn’t so easy
Now, don’t get too excited too fast.
Some of the tradeoffs Apple makes that so frustrate pros also give us stuff we like. So, sure, you get slower GPUs – but you also don’t get fan noise. And you pay more – but you get a machine that’s uncommonly easy to service in a hurry (because of Apple’s network of repair shops). And one with really good design and build.
There are things to like about the new MacBook Pro – yes, the one I was complaining about. The big trackpad holds some potential. The Touch Bar should let you load handy shortcuts in some apps. And if you prefer macOS, this means the older machine is cheaper, and the newer machine is marginally faster.
Still, it’s sad to see the Apple desktop left out of native pen and touch input. It’s frustrating to watch the PC platform embrace the capabilities of 3D when the Mac doesn’t do the same.
To get more detailed, it’s also disappointing that Mac users can’t play along with powerful new capabilities of NVIDIA graphics chips (even the AMD chip costs $2399 to start, and there’s no NVIDIA option). It’s been frustrating that graphics and audio subsystems have sometimes been unpredictable in recent OS updates.
The ideas from Microsoft aren’t perfect. We still have a lot of testing to do. But at least there are new ideas. These are really efforts to explore how you interact with a computer – not a clever (or even useful) gimmick, but some thought into fundamentally how we use the machines.
I fight for the users
I went back and skimmed some moments from computer unveilings past. Even in the end of Jobs’ tenure, Apple’s pitch for the Mac was slowly evolving from something that centered around users and what they did with the machines to what sounds almost like a description of supply chain and engineering instead.
I don’t want to make a Mac versus PC argument – that’s not what this is about. In music and visuals, I recall pretty vividly when we were arguing the AMIGA and Atari, too. Platform competition is good. Things change.
But I do hope that whoever is playing, the future of the computer is focused on what people can do. And I believe the way to excite that world is to push the capabilities of those computers as far as possible.