It's been brewing for a while, but the Mac vs. PC war is back. Apple and Microsoft have shared various battles over many years, in an ongoing rift over the direction of computing, but this week has marked a switch in both of their war strategies. Microsoft is now going after Apple's core customers, and the two are split over the role of touch and input interfaces for PCs.
The fundamental differences and disagreements between the pair of tech giants can be tracked back to the hardware and software products they both produce. Apple separates its tablets and phones with the iOS operating system, and its range of Macs running macOS. Microsoft on the other hand believes in having one operating system, Windows 10, to rule them all and work across phones, PCs, tablets, and even devices like the Xbox One and HoloLens. The strategies are remarkably different.
Microsoft and Apple went head-to-head this week
This week, both Microsoft and Apple held events back-to-back, providing us with a rare opportunity to compare their latest takes on modern computing all in less than 24 hours. Microsoft spent the first part of its keynote demonstrating new Windows 10 features, a new Paint app, and its VR strategy, before the big news of a Surface Studio all-in-one PC. Apple spent the first part of its keynote highlighting pictures from its iPhone 7, and launching a new TV app for its Apple TV, before moving onto the unveiling of its new MacBook Pro lineup.
Apple doesn't believe in touchscreen Macs, but it did add a touchscreen of sorts to its MacBook Pro, just not where you'd expect to find one: the Touch Bar, an OLED touchscreen, replaces the function keys at the top of the keyboard. It includes Touch ID and is easily accessible, customizable, and has the relevant controls displayed dynamically in each app. If you're in Photoshop you'll get tools for manipulating images, and in iTunes you'll get all the music controls you need.
It's too early to judge whether Apple's Touch Bar will be beneficial or just a gimmick, but it's an entirely different approach from just adding a touchscreen to a MacBook. Apple is expecting developers to create contextually aware controls for their apps, and for MacBook users to learn these new controls. There's a clear value here and an interesting take on touch input, and Apple isn't shying away from ripping out old function keys and replacing them with something entirely new.
Apple's Touch Bar has many challenges it needs to meet
The challenges are clear, too. Apple has a lot to prove here, and the company's demos showed controls that could have easily been achieved from using existing keyboard shortcuts or just the trackpad. Apple highlighted emoji input at one point, which seemed like an unusual aside for a laptop that's designed for professionals who care about the speeds and feeds, not gimmicks. Apple enlarged the trackpad on its MacBook Pro, too, but it barely noted the change or explained why bigger is necessarily better. It now looks like a miniature Wacom tablet, but Apple didn't do something wild like getting the Pencil working with it. Touch Bar aside, it was a cautious refresh to the MacBook Pro line, with modern additions instead of big bets.
Microsoft's approach to its Surface Studio was the type you would normally expect from Apple. The sleek product videos, the focus on power, and a new theme of focusing on creatives. A new Surface Dial forms the input mechanism for the Surface Studio, and the whole device is geared toward professionals and creators. It's the type of market that Apple typically dominates, but Microsoft is trying everything to get these users to switch to Windows.
Microsoft still needs to convince everyone that touch PCs are the future
Microsoft has a lot to prove, too. The Surface Studio is a niche product, and the Surface Dial will require developers to build contextual menus into their apps to really make use of the new hardware. Apple is betting on a touch strip interaction model, and Microsoft wants you to wear headsets and create 3D objects, or place crazy puck-like devices on a Surface Studio display. It's tough to compare a laptop directly to a desktop, but it further highlights Apple's resistance to touchscreens on Macs, and Microsoft's new focus on stealing some of Apple's usual customers. The two tech giants are split by fundamental disagreements about the new methods to provide input to modern PCs.
There's a lot of work for both companies to achieve what they've demonstrated this week. This war is far from over, and it's impossible to predict a winner just yet. Apple might not like touchscreens on Macs, but the company has shown it's willing to compete with Microsoft's Surface devices with an iPad Pro. Now Microsoft is showing it's willing to go the extra mile to try and tempt a niche market of professionals over to the Windows world. If you thought the Mac vs. PC days were long gone, think again. They're just about to jump back to life, and customers will elect the winner.