iPad vs. Surface: Apple and Microsoft get closer to convergence

When Apple announced the new Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro—which features a trackpad that users can use to drive a cursor around on the iPad screen—some pundits pointed out that at long last, Apple was admitting that Microsoft was right after all when it designed the Surface with a keyboard and trackpad.

Except that’s not what happened. With iPad and Surface, Apple and Microsoft are both headed for the same destination—a new kind of computer that is just as at home as a touch tablet, with a stylus, or with a traditional keyboard and mouse. They’re just converging on it from opposite directions.

Go with your strengths

Both Microsoft and Apple are victims of their own success. They both start from very strong positions, but missing key features that you need if you’re going to create a next-generation device that’s flexible enough to be whatever you want it to be.

Microsoft’s strength is obvious: it’s Windows. Microsoft is the owner and operator of the traditional PC. The vast majority of of the world’s traditional PCs run Windows. Microsoft starts as the undisputed champion of PC computing, and needs to break out of that to something new.

Apple’s strength is the iPhone, which has transformed the company in terms of size and profits. The iPhone gave Apple a foothold in the next generation of touch-driven devices that Microsoft just doesn’t have, and it used that foothold to create the iPad. Which is great, but the iPad’s the antithesis of the traditional PC.

These two old adversaries stand on opposite sides of the game board, circling, one eye on their opponent and the other eye on the prize in the center: the ultimate converged device. Who can get there first?

Microsoft’s problems

It’s easy for Macworld to throw stones at Microsoft, I know. But the fact is, I’ve admired Microsoft’s attempts to break free of its PC legacy over the last decade. The Metro design language was a really clever attempt to add a modern, touch-focused interface. It was a cornerstone of Windows 8.

I remember watching Microsoft preview the new design language at the D9 conference in 2011. And as Steven Sinofsky of Microsoft showed it off, I kept thinking to myself: “Wow, look at Microsoft. They’re going for it. This is a serious competitor to the iPad.” It didn’t try to rip off iOS, like Android was doing back then—it was its own thing, with innovative features like Live Tiles.