Have Apple And Microsoft Traded Places?

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A new report indicates that Apple is planning to update its line of MacBooks at its Worldwide Developers Conference next month, but will the same machines with minor tweaks be enough to win back mindshare from its fresher competition?

A yearly iterative rejig is nothing new or unexpected for Apple's devices, but what's different this time is that rival Microsoft is also currently making moves in the laptop and home computer space, providing a point of comparison that Apple's not used to. Like many Apple products the various MacBooks were revolutionary at their introduction, but a procession of very similar units has left them feeling stale.

While Apple's MacBooks continue to appeal to some of the same audience they've always appealed to, Microsoft's recent approach (including its current hardware lineup as well as its direction with Windows 10), seems more modern.

Microsoft's ecosystem has been moving towards a duality for quite a while now. In one sense it's becoming more of a tightly-controlled Apple-like structure where the one company builds the hardware, manages the operating system and serves up the apps, but at the same time you can still build or buy whatever machine you want, have it run Windows and install anything you like.

Even though Windows 8 was ridiculed when it introduced the idea of an operating system that would work across devices, Microsoft has now refined its software to the point it can include identical versions with its desktop machines, its tablets or its newly-announced laptops. Any of these machines, regardless of form, could be tweaked and optimised by an advanced user, or put to work as a daily driver by someone who just wants to grab the apps they want and go.

The result is (or, at least, will ideally be) a counter to the traditional perception that Microsoft Windows products are complicated and high maintenance while Apple's "just work". Microsoft's approach allows for tablets with full Windows, home machines with the super-streamlined Windows 10 S, and everything in between.

There's a dual nature to Apple's ecosystem too, but it's tough to see how the two sides can reconcile.

Apple seems to want lovers of its iPhone — a powerful but incredibly easy to use machine running on iOS — to also love the MacBook, a very traditional laptop computer running the very traditional MacOS. Unix-based and tied closely to the way Apple makes hardware, MacOS systems make a lot of sense for a lot of hardcore users. But for the rest of us — namely people that want a powerful and exciting machine that they can operate as easily as they use a phone — Apple's offerings are wanting.

This is perhaps best characterised by the fact that in an era of touchscreens — one which Apple helped usher in — none of its MacBooks or other MacOS devices sport one. In fact Apple has gone well out of its way to avoid a fully touch-enable Mac, as evidenced by the Touch Bar included with the most recent versions of the MacBook Pro.

Meanwhile Apple's attempt to turn its existing touch-enabled device into a productivity machine — with bigger and more powerful iPads — has only highlighted the weirdness of its approach. The iPad Pro seems hobbled and constrained by the limits of iOS, asking users who only want one device to choose between two mutually exclusive extremes.

While anything could happen at WWDC on June 5, all indications would seem to indicate Apple will show off familiar 15-, 13-, and 12-inch laptops featuring more advanced processors than they had before. Just before that, at an event in Shanghai on May 23, Microsoft will unveil what's next for its Surface line following its converting tablet / laptop, massive desktop / drafting table and affordable new laptop.


This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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