It’s a truism that while Windows PCs dominate computer sales, the hearts and tabs of the creative class belongs to Apple. On Wednesday, Microsoft moved aggressively to break up that monopoly with the Surface Studio, a gorgeous, 28-inch all-in-one desktop that flattens out into a digital drafting table. If Microsoft succeeds, it’ll be because Surface Studio truly is an innovative device—but even more so because Apple gave the competition a golden opportunity.
It still won’t be easy for Surface Studio to compete for the attention of artists and designers. That it’s even a possibility, though, shows just how vulnerable Apple has become in that space. And the implications of taking away even some of that market go far beyond Surface Studio itself.
An Open Door
In June of 2013, Apple executive Phil Schiller triumphantly introduced the company’s new, cylindrical Mac Pro. Aimed at professional users, it was a workhorse. More importantly, it was a bombshell, a statement that the company was investing in its high-end and creating indelible experiences. “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” Schiller said at the time.
Since then, the Mac Pro has not received a single update. The iMac has gotten a spec bump or two, including an upgrade to 4K monitors last year. Laptops haven’t had it much better; the Retina MacBook Pro has gone over 500 days without improvements.
That’s expected to change on Thursday, when Apple will hold a hardware event to introduce a long-anticipated MacBook refresh that includes a fun OLED “touch bar” replacing the current row of function keys.
The iMacs may get another spec bump Thursday as well. Even if so, it’s unlikely that they’ll come anywhere close to the feature set that Microsoft introduced today. The longer Apple waits to shove its desktops into the future, the easier it becomes for creative professionals to consider their alternatives.
“They’re long overdue to blow us away,” says Nick Cronan, founding partner of Branch Creative, the design firm behind the Nextbit Robin smartphone. “Either they’re brewing something up, or maybe it’s time for someone like Microsoft to start coming in and take some of their market.”
As recently as two years ago, Microsoft would have been an unlikely suspect. Last year’s Surface book showed that the software and services company has serious hardware chops, and a willingness to experiment where its OEM partners had not. Surface Studio is an extension of that commitment to making things that aren’t just good, but that feel fresh. After all, before Surface Book, when’s the last time a PC made your jaw drop?
“One goal,” says Microsoft VP of devices Brian Hall, is to “have a set of products that we know categorically people can pull out of their bag and feel proud to have, in a way that still runs Windows. Frankly, that has been a bit of a gap.”
To put it simply, the Surface Studio doesn’t just look like a better all-in-one PC. It looks like an entirely new category of device.
“It’s been distilled down to one tangible window, which is pretty appealing,” says Brett Lovelady, founder of design firm Astro Studios. “Then you add in all this utility at a desktop level, which definitely keeps it in the realm of a really progressive work tool. It’s a great combination.”
The creative-friendly touches go beyond its flexibility. Designers we talked to cited everything from the Surface Studio’s ability to adjust color settings based on particular use cases to the device’s unique 3:2 aspect ratio as direct appeals to their workflows. And that’s before you even get to the foldability that turns the Studio into a desktop drafting table.
Consider, in that context, that the current iMac has no touch display, much less stylus input. That’s not so important for Joe Computeruser, but it’s something designers actively crave. It’s also, not to be flip, the future.
“I’m seeing my own five-year-old go to touch every screen, and being surprised when the screens aren’t touch. We know that generation growing up is going to only expect it,” says Cronan. “I touch my work display all day, but then I’ve got to wipe the fingerprints off. It’s only to point to things.”
Surface Studio still has plenty to prove. The chipsets are solid, but not hair-raising. Sketching directly on a display seems more efficient, but it would also be a learned skill for many creatives, most of whom are accustomed to using Wacom peripherals to accomplish tasks built into the Studio itself. And forget even the stark hardware differences; there’s also the matter of luring Apple-ensconced professionals over to another operating system altogether.
“There are a couple of different classes of designers. There are those that really like their tools and don’t want to mess with them,” says Lovelady. “And then there are the other people who are constantly trying new tools to get different effects.”
Microsoft’s Hall points to previous software development around the Surface Pro and Surface Book to put professionals at ease. “Much of the work that’s been needed to be done for pen and touch has already been done,” says Hall. The Adobe suite of creative applications, for instance, already plays nice with Surface, although some key apps remain macOS-only, at least for now.
And making the jump from macOS to Windows 10 may not be as difficult as it sounds at a broader level, either. Designers at both Astro and Branch already switch between Mac and PC; the latter handles heavy-duty 3-D modeling better. And once you get down to the business of doing, Hall argues, there’s really not much difference.
“The issue has been historically that people love the Mac hardware,” says Hall. “But they live in their apps.”
The Very Big Picture
So yes, barring a miracle from Apple’s event on Thursday, Microsoft’s in a position to leapfrog the long-established incumbent among the creative class. So what? So lots.
“It’s a very important market, if nothing more than to maintain and establish a premium position,” says Patrick Moorhead. “It also creates a pull for the rest of the product line.”
In other words, the Surface Studio isn’t just an opportunity to make inroads in a niche market. It’s a way to elevate Windows as a whole, both by offering a premium design and feature set, and through its association with the in crowd. Remember that Apple only has about 7 percent of worldwide PC market share. The Mac line-up stands out, though, because it’s high-end, aspirational, and embraced by the very people who are suddenly taking a very close look at what Studio has to offer.
Surface itself is a big business, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue. But that doesn’t compare to the halo effect of making PCs desirable. The Surface Book did that for engineers. The Surface Studio does it for artists. And regular consumers and Windows OEMS notice.
“By generating interest in high end Windows capabilities, Microsoft builds the market for high end Windows devices from all vendors,” says Ezra Gottheil, principal analyst at Technology Business Research.
In the meantime, if you’ve got $3,000 in your pocket and use a stylus at work, there’s a new toy you might want to check out. Chances are, though, you don’t need me to tell you that.
“I’ve got a whole studio of people, and at least a few will be asking for one soon,” says Lovelady. “I can imagine our team wanting to incorporate that kind of interaction. It’s pretty sweet.”
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