Yesterday, as I finished watching Microsoft’s presentation on my iPad Pro, I thought that Redmond had crushed its old archnemesis in just half an hour. The Surface Neo and the Surface Duo made me think that Microsoft is now the king of innovation and industrial design. They have beaten Apple at its own game.
Not only that, but I also got the impression that, while Apple has been aimlessly wandering for years now — led by a man who is an administrator not interested in products but marketing and profits — Microsoft has surprisingly come out with a clear vision of what they want the future to be. And they are executing it.
It’s been a long time since the presentation of a gadget has left me impressed. In fact, I think the last time was when Steve Jobs said “it’s a phone, it’s a mail client, it’s a web browser, it’s an iPod” before unveiling the iPhone in 2007. I loved the iPhone 4 too, which I thought was an instant industrial design classic (the Museum of Modern Art in New York thought the same).
I thought the same of the iPad too, which I have been using from the original version to the iPad Pro that is now my only work and personal computer. But, without a doubt, the original iPhone was the product that changed our conception of what a mobile communicator is — and how we interact with the digital and physical world.
Now, more than a decade later, Microsoft is trying to do exactly the same. They are innovating where Apple has been iterating, rearranging its former masterpiece symphony to turn it into a sad empty pop song — a boring product, without substance or vision, full of pointless features like Memojis and Face ID. Every year, we just get more of the same.
The innovator’s dilemma
This is actually normal. It’s what they call “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in business schools: there is a moment in which a company with a wildly successful product doesn’t know how to get out of the loop of that product. Like the ice transportation companies being replaced by industrial ice makers being replaced by home fridges, Apple has become paralyzed by its own success.
It has also become a company that makes products like sausages, adding some new camera here, piling up some 3D puppets there, but without ever trying to break the mold again like they did with the original iPhone. Cook and his cronies are just focused on trying to milk their fans, disregarding Steve Jobs and Jony Ive’s focus on creating new products that could change the world again and again and again.
Meanwhile, without nothing to lose or fear, Microsoft has been trying to do exactly what Jobs and Ive did. Over the last few years they have created some beautiful and impeccable hardware. With each new product — from the original Surface, a variation of the iPad, to the Surface Book and the risky Surface Studio — they have taken the technological, engineering, and aesthetic lead. Perhaps that’s why the Surface line that has taken them to the top 5 PC makers ranking in the US. Still behind Apple, but clearly targeting it.
All while tightly integrating their devices with increasingly more polished software that leaves needless adorns behind to become as minimalistic as the hardware design. Plus their expertise in gaming and the cloud, two aspects that Apple is still clueless as shown by the ongoing embarrassing disaster that is iCloud.
Surface Neo and Surface Duo are the maximum expression of Microsoft’s vision. This may sound like marketdroid BS, but the fact is that both (future) products take this obsession with detail and coherence and risk to levels that we have only previously witnessed in both of Jobs’ Apple eras.
Now, now a company that — ironically — has become the David to Apple’s Goliath, can take the risk that the Surface Neo and Surface Duo represent. They are both machines with a design that seems to belong in a science fiction movie, rather than in reality. Yet, they seem like they need to exist right now. To be bold enough to move into this direction, to put the insane resources into creating these two objects of desire, is nothing short of extraordinary in today’s industry.
Samsung is trying to do the same with the Galaxy Fold, but somehow their effort seems devoid of the sense of purpose and coherence that the Surface Neo and Duo have.
Avi Greengart, lead analyst for Techsponential, told Tom’s Guide over email that he believes that Microsoft‘s goal is not to displace Apple and Samsung but “provide more opportunities for productivity-oriented consumers and enterprise users to access Microsoft software and services, and the concept is certainly attractive.”
I think otherwise. These products — all the Surfaces, in fact — are clearly designed to appeal both the enterprise and the consumer. They are true objects of desire. Greengart says that Microsoft “may not need to sell tens of millions of units to be a success for the company over the long term."
I think that, like the rest of its Surfaces, they are on phase three of a plan to win over Apple, which has been taking away business from Microsoft in the enterprise market. The first phase was to establish the Surface 2-in-1 line. The second was to attack professional and creative markets with Surface Book and Studio. And now, it’s time to leap over everyone else with Neo and Duo.
The new innovation king
So yeah, I think that Microsoft has beaten Apple without even releasing these products. I type this on an iPad Pro as someone who has been using Apple products since the Apple II and writing professionally about them through the 90s and early 2000s when 99% of the planet didn’t give a damn about the company until today.
Microsoft has won the innovation and design crown because, unlike Apple, they have clearly became obsessed with the product. While the bureaucrat Cook — despite what he claims —is only interested in optimizing manufacturing and distribution and services and marketing to make dollars to the point into which a genius like Jony Ive leaves the company sad and unhappy, Microsoft seems to be willing to risk everything to make its vision happen.
Which is funny, looking at the history of both companies. Only a few years ago, Microsoft was only the star for the readers of “Accounting Today” but over the past few years, they have been reborn with a new razor sharp vision, creating products that are not only beautiful but innovative, with a design that is aesthetic and makes the product useful, with unobtrusive and honest design, and that is consequent with its function to the very last detail.
Those last few lines are some of the principles for good design by the legendary Dieter Rams, which were the Ten Commandments at Apple when Jobs and Ive were there. Now, they seem to have become the DNA of Microsoft’s Surface design team.
Sooner or later, the tide will change. If Apple doesn’t wake up, if Cook doesn’t deliver on its promise of “products that will blow you away”, Apple will fall again into its 1990s. And this time Steve Jobs will not be able to come back and save them from themselves. In the meantime, we have a new innovation and design king. Dorothy, we are not in Cupertino anymore.
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Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story and wrote old angry man rants, among other things. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce, and currently writes for Fast Company and Tom's Guide.