Later today, the chief marketing officers of Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Lenovo, and HP will gather to host a webcast introducing a major new advertising campaign for the PC. It will mark the first time that the five biggest names in the PC industry have come together around a single, unified message to the consumer. Now is exactly the time for unity — enforced by perpetually slumping sales, but also catalyzed by the perfect alignment of a new Windows release, a new generation of processors, and the always crucial holiday shopping season. But marketing alone is not enough.
Two Windows laptops were reviewed on The Verge yesterday: one from Toshiba, featuring a 4K display, and the other from LG, emphasizing lightness above all else. Both have their marketing gimmick to sell to consumers, but both also carry on the two chronic shortcomings of Windows laptops: wonky touchpads and inadequate battery life. Recent years have seen PC makers try every variation on the basic laptop — making it convertible, detachable, rotatable, or even dockable — but few seem to be addressing the two angry red elephants in the room.
What's so hard about making a good touchpad?
There’s no denying that the world of personal computing is changing, and most of our interactions with technology and the rest of the world will be happening on more convenient mobile devices. IDC reports that 337 million smartphones were shipped in the second quarter of this year, dwarfing the 66 million PCs shipped in the same period. Neither Microsoft nor Dell can do much to reverse that trend. But while PC sales keep dropping, Apple’s Mac division has kept steady and even grown over the years. This is underpinned by the halo effect of the iPhone’s ecosystem, though the more prosaic reason is that MacBooks are just plain better, and two of the crucial factors in this are the quality of its touchpads and longevity of its batteries.
Apple’s MacBook touchpads are so smooth, intuitive, and effortless to use that many people buy them as separate accessories for their desktops. They are the industry standard, but the industry has been recalcitrant to match them. Ultimately, it all comes down to cost, as the glass trackpads on Apple’s computers are pricier as well as heavier. And this is where the PC industry really needs saving from itself, because its recent history has been one of either price wars that lead everyone to cut corners or, alternatively, the pursuit of high-margin gimmicks with low chance of success. People are willing to spend more on MacBooks not because of some flashy feature, but because of great fundamentals like battery life. The MacBook Air is an absolute endurance champion, and it’s hard to find a Windows alternative that can match it at the same compact size and light weight. Apple’s famous marketing machine works as well as it does because the devices the company makes work as well as they do.
The first step in good marketing, therefore, is simply having a solid, uncompromised product, and the good news is that Windows laptop makers are finally waking up to that fact. Dell has led the way with its XPS 13 laptop this year, which isn’t yet in the MacBook’s class, but its touchpad gets remarkably close. It’s probably close enough to swing a few undecided shoppers who might prefer the familiarity of Windows. Dell is nailing the basics of laptop design like never before — including an excellent, almost borderless display and a great keyboard — and the new Skylake-powered XPS 13 and XPS 15 promise to improve battery life and thus erode Apple’s lead even further.
The Surface Book can set a higher standard
Microsoft’s Surface Book also looks like it’ll give legitimate competition to the MacBook Pro, thanks to its precision glass trackpad and generous battery array. HP’s Spectre x360 completes a trifecta of Windows machines that can claim to offer a MacBook-like touchpad experience. Each of these PCs pushes into the premium range, with the most desirable specifications costing upwards of $1,000, but that’s where PC makers need to be competing. Apple isn’t making money selling $500 laptops, it’s not even trying — and it doesn’t seem like the companies that offer such computers are profiting from it either.
What we have now is a beginning on the right path, after a lot of misguided false starts. Gestures and multitouch actions on the touchpad were always Apple’s thing, and PC makers initially adopted the idea half-heartedly — hence the awfulness of their implementation. But that mode of interaction has now proven itself just as much as the keyboard has, and instead of trying to dodge the issue by installing touchscreens and making laptops into weird hybrids, the right solution is to just do awesome touchpads. Save the money, power, and weight spent on a touchscreen and invest them into a bigger battery and a nicer touchpad.
Great products market themselves
For all of its talk of magical revolutions, Apple is actually an extremely conservative company. Today’s MacBook Pro is a slimmed-down version of a design introduced in 2008. The MacBook Air has been left unchanged since 2010. And when Apple altered its touchpad this year to include Force Touch, it did so with great deliberation and a ton of high engineering behind the scenes (and under the glass). Apple gets the fundamentals right in a very serious and rigorous way, and then it gets fancy with its marketing spiel. PC vendors have tended to do the opposite, going for outlandish and gimmicky ideas in their designs, but presenting them in boring and clichéd ways.
To make today’s big marketing push meaningful, PC makers should ensure that it’s underpinned by devices that live up to the hype. It’s worked for Apple, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for Microsoft and its PC comrades.
Verge Interviews: Microsoft's vision for the future