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How Apple lost a round to Microsoft in high-end computing battle

Within the same week Apple and Microsoft had duelling product launch events. And in the technology version of this “Who wore it better?” contest, the winner seems to have been Microsoft.

That’s right. Microsoft has made Apple look like the square, after lifting the veil on a 28-inch touchscreen all-in-one desktop called the Surface Studio that immediately had tech enthusiasts drooling. Over a desktop.

Microsoft takes aim at Apple with high-end PCs and 3D software

One could argue that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Microsoft, while on the rise again, still benefits from lower expectations than Apple. Introducing a new product, such as the Studio, is almost always going to be more exciting than upgrading an old line. But there is a common thread here, which we can use to analyse how these companies are thinking about the future – even more specifically, the future of touch and computing.

Touch itself, as a technology, isn’t new. But Microsoft did a good job of framing its incorporation of touch with the Studio as expansive, liberating, and a universal way to unlock potential. Who doesn’t want to think they have a symphony, novel, or artistic masterpiece inside them, just waiting to be unlocked by the right new tools?

Apple, on the other hand, seems to have uncharacteristically flubbed its audience pitch. Speaking to analysts after its event, it seemed that “current MacBook Pro owners looking to upgrade” was the main audience Apple was going for.

That’s practical – Apple laptops sell well. It’s not inspiring, though, is it?

What makes this even more odd is that Apple is arguably the company that did something really new for their company, at least – the Touch Bar shows off something we haven’t seen from Apple before. The Surface Studio looks gorgeous, but Microsoft’s essentially made an enormous version of its Surface tablet. It’s a very stylish and powerful one, but that’s basically what it is.

Given a couple of days, and a truly dazzling Apple event, that probably could have become the storyline for the Studio. But try to explain what exactly Apple did, and it’s surprisingly hard. They put a miniature iPhone screen at the top of the keyboard, that you could probably ignore if you wanted.

That’s a too-harsh assessment of the Touch Bar from someone who’s only played around with it for less than half an hour. But the Touch Bar certainly lacks a clarity of purpose that Microsoft managed to nail with its products – and managed to nail by not-so-subtly going after Apple’s traditional market of creative users.