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."


"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 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.