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Why Apple's 'What's a computer' just rekt Microsoft's 'real computer' worldview

Yesterday was strange. I opened Twitter and saw a remarkable juxtaposition of story links. In the first, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was characterizing Apple as a "luxury goods manufacturer" and telling reporters on iPads that they "need to get a real computer." In the second, Apple released a new iPad spot asking, "What's a computer?"

From TechRadar:

As [Nadella] walked into the room along with Microsoft India head Anant Maheshwari, Nadella spots that I and a colleague have iPads and cheerfully says, "You need to get a real computer, my friend."

And:

"In a way, I don't want to take away from whatever success Apple or Google are having. We are very different companies. We are not some middleman in the marketplace. We are a tool creator, we are not a luxury good manufacturer. That's not who we are. We are about creating technologies so that others can build."

The old new Microsoft

I have mixed feelings about Nadella's Microsoft.

On one hand, he's been able to look beyond Windows in a way his predecessor, Steve Ballmer never could.

One of Apple's greatest strengths has always been understanding that products aren't businesses. Apple happily pushed iPhone even though it killed iPod, and iPad even though it cut into Mac. iPhone is the biggest product in the history of tech and yet Apple would cannibalize it in a heartbeat if the company was confident it had found its successor. Meanwhile, Balmer rode a collapsing Windows brand nearly into irrelevancy.

It's impossible to say that if Nadella had taken over earlier, we'd have had Xphones, with Office and Halo at launch, competing for shelf space in every carrier store, and Xtabs, running one of the post-Windows operating systems Balmer allowed to die on the vine, in the hands of many more creators, much sooner, than Surface.

But on the other hand, Nadella doesn't seem to really know or be able to focus on what Microsoft is post-Windows. Even our own Windows Central, brand champions all, have been left deflated by the demise of Microsoft on mobile, the strategy around mixed reality as a platform, and the continued end-of-lifing of services like Groove Music.

So, while it's literally Nadella's job to be publicly, loudly critical of competitors like Google or coopetitors like Apple, it's hard to look at the achievements of Sundar Pachai and Tim Cook and find them so easily dismissed, least of all by Microsoft.

I say "coopetitors" because, just like Gates shipped Excel for Mac and Balmer licensed Exchange to iPhone, Nadella knocked iPad long after his company shipped a full-on mobile version of Office for iPad — long before making one for its own hardware. (You can see it, perhaps not coincidentally, in Apple's ad — and the still above.)

And that brings me back to "What's a computer?"

Bringing Windows to an iPad fight

From the perspective of "telling the iPad story", it's one of Apple's most compelling ads in years.

Here's what I wrote about it yesterday:

It's exactly what an iPad Pro commercial needs to be — a window into what we can accomplish with a computing appliance that can not only lasts all day but can come with us almost everywhere, for almost everything, throughout the day.

Tragically, it's exactly the type of commercial I've been hoping for years that Microsoft would make for Surface, instead of the awkward and obvious MacBook Air and iPad compares the company historically insisted on running. Like Google and Pixel, Microsoft and Surface have to tip-toe around OEMs — original equipment manufacturers like Samsung and Lenovo/Motorola that license operating systems but make and market their own hardware — which makes Apple an easy out. But easy outs don't win the market.

That's not to say Surface isn't a great product line, because it is. And Microsoft has done a really good job targeting elements of it towards the creative and traditional pro market segments, including introducing features and implementations that I seriously hope Apple is looking hard at for the next generation of Macs. But, while that's something, it's absolutely not the mainstream.

Halt for caught fire

Microsoft's Surface products still enjoy a reality distortion field in the media that lets them not only be graded on a curve but escape unit sales comparisons to iPad. Despite the relative profit each brings in and mindshare each enjoys, the narrative has become any Surface sales are great for Microsoft and no amount of iPad sales are great for Apple.

That's fine for Apple in an annoying if motivational way. But it's terrible for Microsoft in an everythings-fine-what-fire way.

And it's terrible for a CEO who's teasing reporters for not using a "real computer" when, increasingly, real computers don't run Windows and aren't constrained to the lap or desk.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

21 Comments
  • rekt?
  • I will add “Halt for caught fire”? What the H does that mean?
  • It's a word play on "Halt and Catch Fire", a popular computing phrase from the 70s and 80s. Google it.
  • I didn’t have to look it up, I remember the phrase since I was using/programming computers in the 80s. He just misquoted it. IAC, how does it apply to the subject here? He then goes on to talk about an RDF for Microsoft? Huh? RDF is/was strictly an Apple thing.
  • Yep... Hard to take a "journalist" seriously when the English language is consistently butchered to match a pretentious demographic.
  • Apple edgelord shills rool!
  • Rene - I guess when you had to ask Joanna Stern two years ago (at your own event) to put down her MacBook to try out a Surface, you can imagine the ongoing frustration that they are now covering you with an iPad Pro. Even to this day, at Microsoft reveals you see more MacBooks and iPads out in the tech journalist pool than Surface devices...
  • I keep thinking of appropriate responses to that taunt from Nadella, and I think, "You should make a real OS." Or maybe, "I do, but I didn't want to overshadow your latest spitballing." Maybe, "Sure, as soon as your phones are ready."
  • When Apple released that update that was bricking people's phones and tablets a while back, my iPad screen showed the "connect to a computer" screen.....
  • Good point but the most telling part of your comment is the time frame "a while back". This blog (and Apple's commercial) is about the ever changing face of tech and how labels can quickly go out of fashion even though they are necessary in the moment.
  • Surface tablets are OK hardware. But being saddled with Windows 10, they are doomed to failure. Nadella sounds like he has been reading comments over on Windows Central. Lots of talk over there about the coming “mobile revolution” when “surface phones” arrive from MS, running full Windows 10. I have seen people saying “when you can have the real thing in your pocket, why would anyone want an iPad or an iPhone?” They are actually predicting a “post-phone era”. What they are too blind to see is that we are actually entering the post-PC era. How anyone can think that creaky, ancient, barnacle-encrusted Windows is the “real thing” - in 2018 - is beyond comprehension. It is to laugh.
  • First off, really great ad.
    Secondly, let me talk about the Surface line.
    I did a stint recently at a corporate client’s offices and along with iPhones they also give their staff Surfaces (Pro’s and books).
    What I noticed with them is that they’re always used in the traditional PC mode, keyboard out and many were also paired with a mouse.
    IMO that’s where MS is being held back, due to their Windows legacy. They just can not break away from it.
    People are generally creatures of habit. If you give them something new but keep the familiar around, they are very likely to fall back to the familiar.
  • It’s also due to the legacy Windows apps. They are not touch friendly. Some do not respond to touch at all. I have personally seen this. So you NEED a mouse to use the apps. There are no mobile apps on Windows, or very few at best. So a “Windows tablet” is pretty much pointless, just like Windows Phones. I know, because I had both before I gave up and moved to iOS. So of course the surface “tablets” are used as laptops. When all you have is a desktop OS, all devices are used like desktops.
  • Lol, the ad is trash and it's stupid...hop of the apple train for 2 minutes and actually watch it. It's literally the dumbest commercial I've ever seen...
  • Kool-Aid is the most advanced word in your vocabulary. Luckily, 99% of the people here are far more intellectual than you are and can make decisions for themselves without bias.
  • I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t the author’s intent, but, the article brings up a growing pet peeve of mine: The arcane notion of, “computing”. I get it, that’s what the machine is really doing at its very core, but that’s rarely what I’m doing. I don’t get into my bang&boom and drive to work, I get into my car and drive to work. I don’t put my milk back into the heat-transference inducer, I put it back into the refrigerator. My problem with the notion of “computing” runs deep, but it’s not so deep that I begin to find something truly demeaning about it - something that’s meant to hold my perception of using “computing” devices hostage. MS continues to try and keep this notion, that “computing” is beyond anything I can really understand, alive - and it’s less and less okay with me. Apple, on the other hand, while competing fiercely for product market place, seems perfectly happy to make products that assist me, enable me, help me, in fact, become my personal assistants in accomplishing specific tasks and goals and/or in approaching life from a purely creative POV in order create solutions or artistic accomplishments, aurally and/or visually. Intentionally or not, thanks for reminding me of my problems with “computing”, but also reminding me of how wonderful and assistive these technological assistants can be when they do what I need them to do rather than the other way around.
  • That's a really good and IMO very valid point. Are you computing when driving your car? Of course you are, but you are doing so incidentally. Computing in the traditional sense meant calculating and representing results, not surfing, not email. More importantly, of course the iPad is a computer, what it can never be, as implemented, is a personal computer. Personal computers are under their owner's control. They are also directly programmable in native code. You need a Mac to program an iPad, further, you are forced into doing business with Apple to distribute that code. Hardly user control.
  • klahanas - Unfortunately, user control is a fading concept even in the Windows worldview. Microsoft's Windows 10 & Office 365 are just examples of how they are wanting users to use subscription services. No matter if it's a paid or an ad-supported Operating System or application. Continuous flow of income looks great on corporate books too! We don't need that type of control over our computer & we should pay regularly for new eye-candy (and sometimes, new great features)...Well, at least that's kinda what they're telling us. Microsoft is really following after iOS & Chromebook concepts for the future. I see the future of even the corporate environment be mostly very thin clients or essentially a high end dumb terminal with MS Azure or Amazon AWS on the server side. This essentially gets rid of most of opportunities in the IT world career compared to now. Today in the corporate world, IT may come fix your computer. The future is simply, we'll take the one that isn't working & quickly switch it out with another one we have in stock & no need to remiage the machine. I can't see the Mac going into the subscription world, but I can see them become even more of a niche product than they are now. I remember using my Texas Instruments TI-994A computer or a Tandy. Windows changed the world's computing experience for around 30 years. Yes, I know Apple had it's place in the change. Several years ago we entered a new season of main stream computing for most consumers. We probably started really entering it or it gained a lot of momentum with the advent of iOS. Apple is on to something & this is a great commercial. Excellent message in Apple's style. As I type this on a Dell with Windows 7 Enterprise on it, getting ready to open up & use my wonderful iPad Pro...Which I'd rather be using most of the time anyway. I don't see the MacOS & iOS never really totally or completely merging ever. I can see Apple (even Google) convincing people that a "full computing experience" isn't what 'regular' PC's offer. Like in the video, essentially a fully enjoyable & productive experience is an iPad. What would you want a PC for? It's like asking someone if they want a Commodore 64 computer...Why would I want that? What is that? :) Now, if I could just back up/sync my iPad to an external hard drive instead of needing to plug it into my Mac (and NOT using the cloud) that would be great!!
  • The "what's a computer" ad sucks, just by the sheer level of dumbass of the retarded (and fugly) hipster kid who genuinely doesn't seem to understand what a computer is. Once she gets a real job and has to do actual work, oh she'll learn the a computer is...well that 's if she gets into college, she really doesn't seem that bright.
  • Yeah did the reviewer mention the **** hardware on the surface. A mobile processor. No Thunderbolt or usb c. No upgradeable ram. Guess the surface forgot many pros. The iMac 2015 has a desktop processor and Thunderbolt 2 and upgradeable ram. Plus it was way cheaper. No comparison.
  • The surface just runs on its gimmick of a touch screen, many applications on the OS still aren't optimised for touchscreen. A user on here even said they barely use the touchscreen, so essentially it's just a gimped PC