Yet perhaps because itâs way behind Apple, Microsoftâs hardware division is creating products more daring than much of what has been coming out of its rival lately.
The hybrid Surface Pro â the inheritor of that first Surfaceâs vision, the latest version of which was released in May â hasnât just become a moneymaker for the company. It was also the clear inspiration for the Apple iPad Pro, which supports a pen and keyboard but still feels less like a full-fledged laptop than Surface does.
Late last year, Microsoft also unveiled Surface Studio, a big-screen desktop that bears a passing resemblance to the Apple iMac â except its vertical display effortlessly pivots into a kind of digital drafting table, a slick trick that you can imagine Steve Jobs having lots of fun showing off at a keynote address.
And in the spring, Microsoft showed off Surface Laptop, which sounds humdrum enough; in shape and purpose, it isnât much different from the MacBook Air, Appleâs pioneering thin and light laptop. But Microsoftâs machine has a better screen than the Air, and, more important, a future. People loved the Air, but Apple doesnât appear to want to upgrade it, so Microsoft stepped in to perfect Appleâs baby.
Note, too, that the rest of Appleâs PC road map has lately been looking shaky. Appleâs latest laptops left many fans disgruntled, and the Mac Pro has gone years without an update. Apple is now moving quickly to address complaints from its high-end âproâ users â it says the Mac Pro will be redesigned, and a new Pro version of the iMac is coming later this year.
âI think Microsoft has recognized over the last couple years that maybe the creative community isnât as locked into the Mac as many people think it is,â said Jan Dawson, an independent technology analyst. âThereâs this window of opportunity for Surface to get in there â and even if that window closes with some of Appleâs upcoming devices, I donât think Apple has that market locked up.â
Last month, I visited Microsoftâs hardware lab at the companyâs headquarters in Redmond, Wash. I arrived in the midst of a renovation, finding a team of its best hardware designers sitting in a cavernous, mostly empty room â a scene that perfectly captures Microsoftâs approach to hardware.
Under Panos Panay, Microsoftâs Surface chief, the company has given its designers and engineers license to rethink the future of PCs in grand ways â to sit in an empty room, dream big things, and turn those visions into reality.
âWe have this mind-set that says, âHey, Iâm going to take a shot at this, and if itâs not going to work, weâll move on to the next thing,ââ Mr. Panay told me. âThat is celebrated â itâs always, âLetâs go, letâs move.ââ
The mind-set has resulted in several shining ideas. For Surface Studio, Microsoft built a brilliant companion device called Surface Dial â a palm-size knob that sits on your drafting-table screen, creating a tactile interface with which to control your computer.
You can use Dial for basic things like turning up the volume. But in the hands of a designer, it becomes a lovely tool; you can scrub through edits in a video or change your pen color in Photoshop with a turn of the wheel. Like Microsoftâs digital stylus â which works across the companyâs PCs and tablets, whereas Apple staunchly, weirdly opposes adding touch-screen abilities to its Macs â Dial is one of those interface breakthroughs that we might have once looked to Apple for. Now, itâs Microsoft thatâs pushing new modes of computing.
Microsoftâs machines arenât perfect. I found Surface Studio, which starts at $3,000, to be underpowered for its price. Surface Pro is a wonderful laptop, but as a tablet, it isnât as good as the iPad. And it, too, is pricey â though it starts at $800, youâre looking at $1,200 to $1,500 to get a model with decent speeds and the pen and keyboard accessories (crazily, theyâre sold separately).
For these reasons and others, itâs unlikely that Microsoftâs PC hardware business will beat Appleâs anytime soon. But anyone who cares about the future of the PC should be thrilled that Apple now faces a serious and creative competitor.