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Why Is Apple Letting Microsoft's Surface Kill the Mac?

More than ever, Microsoft is in a position with its hybrid PC to challenge Apple in the space of innovation.

If you're a professional whose job takes you out of the office frequently, chances are the short list for your next PC will include a MacBook Pro and a Microsoft Surface.

After stumbling badly out of the gate with the original Surface RT in 2012, Microsoft has recovered to win excellent reviews with its Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Meanwhile, Apple continues to sell roughly 20 million Macs a year, most of them in the MacBook family. The result is an unlikely head-to-head competition for the only slice of the PC market that is both growing and profitable.

Even more improbably, Microsoft now finds itself being hailed as the innovator in modern PC design, with Apple hearing loud criticism for its outdated devices and timid technology decisions.

Have we fallen through the looking glass? Not exactly. But the tale of these two product lines says a lot about what both companies think of the future of computing, with two very different approaches to the convergence of traditional PCs and mobile devices.

As far as Apple is concerned, the PC of the future will be a descendant of the iPad Pro, with a screen large enough to handle side-by-side documents.

The Mac, on the other hand, is a legacy device, as far as Apple is concerned. The biggest tell? Six years after the debut of the iPad and four years after PCs began shipping with touchscreens, Apple adamantly refuses to add touch capabilities to the MacBook line.

That design decision is not just stubbornness. Rather, it's a deliberate decision that Cupertino made after watching Microsoft's Windows 8 woes. Apple's Phil Schiller admitted as much in an interview with British newspaper The Independent in October: "If you made the Mac a touchscreen you'd have to figure out how to make it a good experience with your finger on a touchscreen. Trust me, we've looked at that -- it's a bad experience. It's not as good or as intuitive as with a mouse and trackpad."

The new MacBook Pros get a second touch surface (the Touchbar), but when it comes to the main display, you can look but not touch.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has gone all in with touchscreens. More important, it has built Windows 10 to support what insiders refer to as One Core. The same core Windows code runs on every version of Windows: desktops, notebooks, ARM-based tablets and phones (yes, Windows phones still exist), the Xbox One console, and an unfathomable number of Internet of Things devices. Those devices have a large number of common APIs, as well, which makes Universal Windows Platform apps possible.

The reengineering work that went into One Core took years, but the first step is now complete. As a result, Microsoft can ship updates to all of those Windows 10 platforms simultaneously and support some decidedly nontraditional form factors.

In short, Microsoft's approach to convergence starts with its classic PC hardware and software, adding new capabilities to the OS to support new devices and services. Apple's approach is to put its version of the classic PC on a glide path to obsolescence and concentrate on beefing up its newest platform, the iPad Pro.

So, where should you place your bets? Well, Apple has done a spectacular job of encouraging developers to write apps for iOS. In fact, one of the most prolific developers of them all is Microsoft, which has dozens of professional apps in the Apple store, including the heavyweights in the Office family -- Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft has a compelling developer story on paper. Write one app and then make a few small changes to different devices? That approach sounds great, except for the fact that Windows has only a meager share of the market for mobile devices.

Increasingly, I'm convinced that there's room for both iOS and Windows, with devices defined more by screen size and connectivity than by which OS they happen to run. In a world where online services define work, the platform itself is a matter of personal preference. Where that leaves the Mac, however, isn't so clear.

About the Author

Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."

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