Where is Apple's innovative iPad, MacBook Pro hardware to rival Microsoft's Surface?

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited July 25
Despite getting lighter, thinner and faster, Apple's iPad tablets and MacBook notebooks haven't dabbled into entirely new desktop computing form factors and experimental hardware concepts the way Microsoft has with its Surface business segment -- and for good reason. Here's a look at why.


An unhinged Surface PC reflects the tech media's enrapturement with impractical, unsuccessful experimentation

Apple and the Case of the Conventional Computer

Apple's strategies behind its iPad and MacBook business segments are often maligned by bloggers who question both the company's engineering prowess and its creative, innovative spirit. The worn-out cliche that "Apple isn't innovative anymore" is largely grounded in the idea that Apple's modern computing offerings are established and practical, rather than radical amusements that excite the media. This is castigated as "evolutionary, not revolutionary" by people who have apparently never experienced the disruption of actual revolutions.

A considerable part of Apple's modern success is rooted in the fact that it perfects products that have already proven successful, rather than spraying out an array of wild concepts in the hope that some might stick. Microsoft, Google and even Samsung lack any real, established success in hardware computing products comparable to the volumes of iPads and Macs that Apple sells every quarter.

Two decades ago, Apple's hardware business was about as desperate as companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung are today. That's why Steve Jobs pushed his iMac team to create something whimsical enough to stand out. In fact, many of the entirely new and somewhat risky product introductions of that era were required because Apple didn't have a solid and mature base of users anywhere close to what it has now.

Steve Jobs computers
Steve Jobs turned heads with flashy computers, but flash didn't always materialize in commercial success


Unrestrained experimentation resulted in some hit Apple products (like iMac), but also created a series of expensive failures. The PowerMac G4 Cube, Xserve and Mac mini all found fans but not enough buyers to sustain their continued advancement. More recently, the boldest PC jump Apple has attempted similarly turned out to be regarded as a flop: the cylindrical Mac Pro.

As it turned out, core Mac Pro buyers really wanted an evolution of the tower product they were already familiar with, not a flashy new revolution with the ability to excite media personalities-- whose job is to be excited about feature-flash and specification sizzle, rather than to do actual productive work.

Apple and the Creative Duress of Extraordinary Scrutiny

At the same time, Apple also faces extraordinary media scrutiny that its peers simply do not. Microsoft Surface has suffered through major reliability issues since its release. Google has affixed its brand to generations of tablets that were effectively dysfunctional. Samsung recently struggled through the worst product disaster (and botched response) to ever hit a tech company. Yet all of these major issues were either ignored by the tech media or excused with elaborate explanations of why they wouldn't really matter in the long run.

In stark contrast, when an obscure firmware bug caused new MacBook Pro models to overcompensate for rising processor temperatures, non-engineer YouTube personalities and random Internet bloggers weighed in with comments that instantly jumped to the conclusion that Apple had lazily slapped new Intel processors into an old MacBook chassis, resulting in a simplistic "defective by design" overheating issue. In reality, the problem was solved within a week with a software patch.

Nobody seemed to recall that virtually every Intel chip deals with various "errata" bugs, most of which can't simply be fixed with a software update. Even more curiously, the entire planet seemed to have collectively forgot that Intel, AMD and ARM were all just hit by a huge wave of vulnerabilities within the last year due to the nature of speculative execution methods they employ.

Shouldn't the sharpest silicon minds on earth "have known about these bugs" before they began trickling out back in 2011? Nobody asked that, but there are plenty of people insisting that Apple "should have known" about the recent flaw in MacBook Pro thermal management firmware.

And unlike Apple's new MacBook Pro fix, there's no simple patch for Meltdown and Spectre that restores things back to normal. The solution is only to turn off affected branch speculation features and perform "site isolation," both of which can impact performance on PCs, servers and netbooks regardless of their operating system.

When the entire industry suffers from a mistake in a finished product or a component, it's simply a matter of scrambling to fix it. When Apple discovers a flaw, it's time to wag fingers and prattle on about how mistakes should never be made in the production of expensive, premium hardware. Unless its a super expensive Intel processor, or a Tesla, or Google Pixel, in which case it's a sort of "locker room talk," where privileged affluent people can't be expected to answer for their actions or performance.

Why doesn't Apple try new things, like Microsoft?

Apple's computing hardware is frequently compared against Microsoft's Surface segment. In 2012, Microsoft launched Surface as a two pronged mobile PC concept, one using a conventional Intel processor (Surface Pro), and one using ARM chips (Surface RT), somewhat similar to Apple's approach with iPad. The latter turned out to be a huge mistake, as Microsoft marketed essentially a lower-powered ARM tablet as a Windows device, albeit one that couldn't run most Windows software.

Microsoft doubled down on evolutionary enhancements to the Surface Pro until 2015, when it launched a more conventional Surface Book laptop and rebranded an acquired digital whiteboard as Surface Hub. It then launched Surface Studio (a mini PC attached to a large, pivoting touch screen) and last year an even more mundane Surface Laptop. It most recently launched Surface Go, a mini laptop, to round out its veritable explosion of creative PC innovation on the level of HP.

Microsoft now sells six different major computing device form factors; Apple only has ten different basic models of Macs and iPads, despite being in the computing game decades longer than Microsoft. Samsung actually sells more PC, netbook and tablet forms than Apple. Before giving up on tablets and Chromebook Pixel, Google basically matched Apple's product lineup. HP, Lenovo and others have similarly wide ranges of products for sale. Yet all of these competitors have actual sales that are a fraction of Apple's revenues.

Why isn't Apple rapidly sprouting out new form factors? in part, Apple isn't wildly experimenting because it already knows what people really want. That understand keeps evolving with Apple's Mac and iPad product lineup.

Revolutionary Evolution

Consider Macs. When Microsoft announced its intentions for Surface PCs, Apple was building a 13, 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pro, a 13 inch MacBook and an 11 inch MacBook Air. Rather than speculatively creating new products people ultimately wouldn't buy, Apple refined its offerings based on what people were actually buying. That meant discontinuing the large, heavy 17 inch MacBook Pro and doubling down on light, thin portables that were.

Despite the braying donkeys that endlessly hee-haw about how stupid Apple is for making laptops that are light and thin rather than packed with intercoolers and video-gaming GPUs, the result has been that Apple now sells more laptops than it ever has.


Pundits criticized new MacBook Pros as being too light and thin, despite being the world's most popular premium notebooks


If you ask engineers or marketing people or anyone else in the real world about important factors to consider in buying a laptop, they will pretty quickly get around to the point where they tell you that having a large display or desktop-class power is far less important than being able to carry it around without their back and neck hurting.

In 2016, when Apple "revolutionized" its MacBook Pro lineup to be nearly as light and thin overall as its extremely popular MacBook Air, tech media and related punditry honked disapprovingly like a field of angry Canadian Geese with nothing on their schedule apart from inhaling grass, pooping on everything and aggressively attacking anything that dare cross them. People don't wan't light and thin notebooks, they insisted, they want 32GB of RAM to virtualize multiple instances of Windows, in a large heavy frame that is neither light nor thin.

Many of the same voices have insisted that what people really want is a huge touch screen desktop (Surface Studio) or a laptop that detaches into thick tablet and a base with a GPU in it. Despite all this confident insistence on what people really want, we have the results from a democratic vote where people cast ballots in the form of dollars. Guess who people elected to build their portable computers? It wasn't Microsoft.

In fact, across the last four years (2014-2017) and the first quarter of 2018, Apple's sales of increasingly light and thin MacBooks and MacBook Pros, iPad and iPad Pros, and its desktop offerings centered around iMac have resulted in sales of over $196 billion. Over the same period of Microsoft's entire pantheon of Surface-branded devices, it has collected just over $16 billion-- at far lower operating margins due to its dramatically lower sales volumes and higher return rates.




The short answer to why Apple isn't acting like Microsoft is that it doesn't need to and wouldn't want to. Apple isn't desperately looking for a hardware hit. It's perfecting a game it's been winning for over a decade. Nobody else, from PC volume leaders Lenovo and HP, to mobile volume leaders like Samsung, experience anything comparable to the success Apple has had in perfecting and refining its tablets, notebooks and desktops.

Apple is trying new things, they're just successful

While Apple hasn't radically remixed its hit form factors, the company also isn't just conservatively selling slightly polished versions of yesterday's technology. Its iPads and Macs employ new innovations ranging from custom high performance SSD controllers to advanced displays with ambient-aware color management.

Apple pulled off porting its desktop OS to mobile, lightweight ARM hardware two years before Microsoft and managed to profitably sustain its iPad business across the five years since Microsoft gave up on RT, without destroying its conventional Mac business. Outside the largely standardized form factors of mobile, laptop and desktop computing, there's something else that Apple is experimenting in that is wildly more successful than anything Microsoft has done with its Surface brand

Yet outside the largely standardized form factors of mobile, laptop and desktop computing, there's something else that Apple is experimenting in that is wildly more successful than anything Microsoft has done with its Surface brand.

This performance is hidden inside Apple's Other Hardware segment, which includes HomePod, Apple TV, Apple Watch, AirPods and Beats. These specialized computers that drive personal entertainment, home audio and wearable technology have excelled in markets that other PC and mobile vendors (inclining Microsoft, Google and Samsung) have failed miserably.

Apple's sales of Other Hardware have absolutely skyrocketed over the past four years, growing from $8.2 billion in 2014 to $14.3 billion last year. Over the same four years and a quarter noted above for Microsoft's Surface and Apple computers, Other Hardware has sold $49 billion worth of "less conventional computing." That's three times the revenues of Microsoft's entire Surface business over the same period.


Apple's Other Hardware is already far bigger than Surface (and growing)


And while Surface has stagnated around $1 billion in quarterly sales, Apple's Other Hardware has surged into a $4 to $5 billion quarterly enterprise. Almost nobody talks about how successful Apple's experimental computing form factors are in home and wearables. Instead, we have regular reports from sites like the Verge, where Tom Warren recently congratulated Microsoft for maintaining Surface as a "billion dollar business" quarterly.

Warren wrote, "Surface revenue has jumped 25 percent year over year this quarter to $1.1 billion, 'driven by strong performance of the latest editions of Surface' says Microsoft."

Actually, what Microsoft stated in its earning reports was that "Surface revenue increased $237 million or 25 percent, driven by strong performance of the latest editions of Surface against a low prior year comparable." It's pretty solidly disingenuous to edit a corporate quote to make things look rosier than they really are, but that's what Warren chose to do here.

The truth is that Surface sales aren't really growing at all. They've been stranded as a "billion dollar business" over the last four years. New product releases and expanded availability isn't creating a growing user base nor new revenues or profits. Surface is stagnant, and a "billion dollar business" is not a great place to be stranded, considering that it costs real money to develop, maintain and build those devices. That's revenues, not profits. Surface was "a billion dollar business" when RT was losing a billion dollars.

It's noteworthy that Apple's iPad has been maligned for not growing despite being at least a "four billion dollar business" quarterly, while Macs hover around being a "six billion dollar business" quarterly. Why are Apple's sales of ten billion dollars worth of conventional computers each quarter an unimpressive figure, while Microsoft's stagnant single billion a cause for celebration and fawning approval?

And why are Microsoft's experimental computing concepts involving new shapes of Windows PCs "innovative" despite not expanding actual sales across years, while Apple's branches into home and wearables are considered barely worth mentioning despite huge new gains and regular sales volumes and revenues well beyond those of Microsoft Surface? It's hard to say what these pundits are thinking.

But the bottom line is: if you want to see Apple doing creative, innovative computing form factors, look beyond the stagnant PC business and note that Apple is alone in successfully selling wearables, luxury-class home audio and other novel, futuristic shapes of applied computing devices. And it's pretty clearly just getting started.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 89
    mlpricemlprice Posts: 3member
    I believe there are 2 reasons for this. 

    1. It is actually Microsoft who is trying to compete with Apple and not the other way around. Microsoft must toss crap out there and see what attracts flies. Apple probably already knows that its users prefer the conventional notebook style laptop and do not want a break-apart design that converts to a tablet. It simply doesn't feel right.

    2. Also Apple responds with innovation. They don't waste it on experiments. If they perceive that we are tired of MacBooks and MacBook Pros and are beginning to look askance at competitive offerings, they will innovate. They do this with everything. Even then the innovation isn't truly innovation. They look at what's been tried out there and cherry pick the good stuff. 
    welshdogStrangeDaysjahbladevukasikamacky the mackycornchipwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 2 of 89
    dreyfus2dreyfus2 Posts: 1,063member
    backstab said:
    Hey! A whole new level of pathetic clickbait from AI.
    Even I'm a bit surprised.
    Clickbait, yes. But a different kind. One that actually leads to something intelligent and true. Made me smile...
    frantisekracerhomie3jahbladelostkiwiradarthekatmacky the mackycornchipwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 3 of 89
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 3,940member
    Excellent piece. 

    Oh, and look: actual facts and numbers. 

    Rather than idiots screaming,“It’s too thin”, because another idiot screamed the same thing five minutes earlier. 
    edited July 25 StrangeDayschiaandrewj5790pscooter63jahbladelostkiwip-dogwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 4 of 89
    Yes, a surprising article with some muddled logic (“locker room talk”? Huh?). And the tone is a bit dismissive of Apple’s recent troubles with the i9 processor. (“Non-engineer YouTubers”) Example: In another story published by AI, Apple actually worked with the “non-engineer” to apparently resolve the issue. 

    Most AI readers don’t really care about Samsung, Microsoft, etc. offerings, so why the paranoia? Is it to stifle legitimate criticism by AI readers on Apple? Methinks so. 

    And lastly, where is the updated Mac Mini? Cook promised and update. “It’s in our future” Remember. Which future?
    gatorguyelijahgmuthuk_vanalingamaknabisingularityavon b7
  • Reply 5 of 89
    robin huberrobin huber Posts: 3,184member
    Where are all the developers and apps on the Surface?
    p-dogwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 89
    rogifan_newrogifan_new Posts: 3,005member
    What’s the purpose of this editorial? Did someone recently write a pro-Microsoft article that bashed Apple? How about writing an Apple editorial instead. Like maybe one saying their laptop line is a bit of a mess right now and the MBA, MB and non-TB MBP should be combined into one device. Or with regards to desktops either update the Mac mini or discontinue it already.
    elijahgmuthuk_vanalingamsingularityavon b7
  • Reply 7 of 89
    mlpricemlprice Posts: 3member
    Yes, I want a new MacMini now!
    elijahgjahbladevukasikajmulchinowatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 89
    I agree with the headline.

    Apple is good at doing some new things, but they let other stuff go.  I.e. they just did a decent refresh on the MacBook Pro with things we NEED like 32GB.  They did the nifty touchbar thing before, but they need to walk and chew gum.

    Mac Mini updates?  Years?   Really?  Come on Apple you can do better.    Mac PRO updates?  Years?  Ditto.  This is the technology business.  There is no good excuse to make your customers wait years for updates to tools that they depend on for day to day use.  IMHO, it's just disrespectful after a point.
    elijahgPeperinomuthuk_vanalingamjahbladejmulchino
  • Reply 9 of 89
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 323member
    But. But. Surface Go has a built-in kickstand. That offers multiple viewing angles.
    StrangeDayswilliamlondonjahbladewatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 89
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 5,100member
    jmulchino said:
    Yes, a surprising article with some muddled logic (“locker room talk”? Huh?). And the tone is a bit dismissive of Apple’s recent troubles with the i9 processor. (“Non-engineer YouTubers”) Example: In another story published by AI, Apple actually worked with the “non-engineer” to apparently resolve the issue. 

    Most AI readers don’t really care about Samsung, Microsoft, etc. offerings, so why the paranoia? Is it to stifle legitimate criticism by AI readers on Apple? Methinks so. 

    And lastly, where is the updated Mac Mini? Cook promised and update. “It’s in our future” Remember. Which future?
    You lost bro?

    I enjoyed this editorial piece. And despite your claim, we discuss these brands every week. 

    Please quote when Cook said they’d get you a new mini by. Thanks. 
    Rayz2016elijahgpscooter63baconstangjahbladejmulchinowatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 11 of 89
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 5,100member

    What’s the purpose of this editorial? Did someone recently write a pro-Microsoft article that bashed Apple? How about writing an Apple editorial instead. Like maybe one saying their laptop line is a bit of a mess right now and the MBA, MB and non-TB MBP should be combined into one device. Or with regards to desktops either update the Mac mini or discontinue it already.
    What’s the purpose of your whining every time DED publishes a new editorial in his regular column? You sound insecure.
    mwhiteRayz2016elijahgandrewj5790pscooter63smiffy31baconstangjahblademacky the mackywatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 89
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 323member
    What’s the purpose of this editorial? Did someone recently write a pro-Microsoft article that bashed Apple? How about writing an Apple editorial instead. Like maybe one saying their laptop line is a bit of a mess right now and the MBA, MB and non-TB MBP should be combined into one device. Or with regards to desktops either update the Mac mini or discontinue it already.
    As with every other editorial, one would assume its purpose is to express an opinion about something. In this case, it’s a recurring theme about the recurring phenomena of tech writers, bloggers, posters, and paid trolls who seem to have a willful ignorance underlying their ongoing insistence that Apple should abandon its successful model in order to circle back and chase after the competition. 
    Rayz2016bestkeptsecretjahbladecornchipwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 89
    fotoformatfotoformat Posts: 279member
    DED wrote, "Despite all this confident insistence on what people really want, we have the results from a democratic vote where people cast ballots in the form of dollars..."

    That's quite an eloquent and memorable turn of phrase!
    Rayz2016numenoreanmacky the mackywatto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 89
    jmulchino said:

    And lastly, where is the updated Mac Mini? Cook promised and update. “It’s in our future” Remember. Which future?
    The future is always ahead of us, you know
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 89
    nunzynunzy Posts: 531member
     everybody criticizes Apple. But Apple doesn't release huge numbers of foolish products. Instead, they sit back and rake in the cash.
  • Reply 16 of 89
    Touch screens on laptops remains a bad idea.  

    Microsoft’s OS gymnasts to make the transformer idea work resulted in a poor user experience for everyone.

    Credit to Microsoft, they’re doing some cool things in VR & gaming.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 89
    IreneWIreneW Posts: 101member
    Where are all the developers and apps on the Surface?
    Like everywhere? It is a Windows PC, you know?
  • Reply 18 of 89
    techconctechconc Posts: 30member
    jmulchino said:
    Yes, a surprising article with some muddled logic (“locker room talk”? Huh?). And the tone is a bit dismissive of Apple’s recent troubles with the i9 processor. (“Non-engineer YouTubers”) Example: In another story published by AI, Apple actually worked with the “non-engineer” to apparently resolve the issue. 

    Most AI readers don’t really care about Samsung, Microsoft, etc. offerings, so why the paranoia? Is it to stifle legitimate criticism by AI readers on Apple? Methinks so. 

    And lastly, where is the updated Mac Mini? Cook promised and update. “It’s in our future” Remember. Which future?
    For starters, I think we can look at the Macbook i9 controversy now in hindsight seeing as though it has been resolved. An issue was reported and it was resolved rather quickly and trivially with a software update. How much of a big deal do you think we should make of this? Was a product recall required? No? Then what's your point? Also, I'm fairly certain you don't speak for "most AI readers". For that matter, if you weren't interested in the article, why did you read it? Sure, Daniel's articles involve a fair amount of Apple cheer leading, but calling out other dopes in the media like those who write for the Verge sits well with me. Especially when these articles have verifiable supporting data.
    mwhitechiaRayz2016roundaboutnowelijahgsmiffy31baconstangwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 89
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,162member

    And lastly, where is the updated Mac Mini? Cook promised and update. “It’s in our future” Remember. Which future?

    The multiverse has many futures. In one version of ourselves everyone has a sensibly priced, compact and up to date Mac mini in every room of the house. It just isn’t this version.
    elijahgbaconstangorthiconjmulchinowatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 89
    jurassicjurassic Posts: 79member
    Microsoft's products are only "innovative" on the surface (pun intended). They are products that try to be different, but without any consideration to whether that difference is warranted or even useful. Microsoft's computer products look "interesting" at first glance, but they pale in productivity and usefulness compared to personal computers from Apple and other manufacturers (especially when you compare products in the same price range or lower). Toss in the added disadvantages of Microsoft's piss-poor product reliability and support, and it explains why sales of Microsoft's Surface computers have been so anemic.
    watto_cobra
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