Clarifying the Business Value of PCs – Microsoft Flies, Apple Flops

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  November 9, 2016

Last week’s launches of new and/or updated workplace endpoints by Apple and Microsoft resulted in more controversy and contentiousness than either company likely imagined. That was especially true for Apple due to radical changes the company made in its venerable MacBook Pro line.

As a result, Microsoft came off looking like a more innovative hardware vendor, as well as being better attuned to the needs of business end users. Considering how crucial corporate sales are to both companies, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what Apple got wrong and Microsoft got right, along with what that means for both companies.

What makes a workplace notebook?

Before getting into that, let’s consider why and how workplace notebooks differ from consumer-grade products. In general, businesses evaluating new notebooks and PCs look for solutions that can:

  • Fully support or improve the performance of existing business applications/processes
  • Enable new use cases and/or workloads
  • Set the stage for future workplace requirements/business scenarios

Other features and technical points come into play, of course. Those include the availability of strong security features/technologies, good quality management tools, and cost-effective deployment, maintenance and support services. Plus, esthetic issues, like contemporary design and features, can be important considerations, at least for notebooks used by senior managers and executives.

Plus, don’t forget core budgetary factors and limitations. Business organizations also tend to be among the most conservative of IT buyers, and for over a decade IT has been ordered to “work smarter, not harder” and “do more with less.” Which is to say, spend only as much as you need. As a result, vendors demanding high prices for their solutions face substantial scrutiny and pushback from thrifty customers.

With these points in mind, how do the new offerings from Apple and Microsoft stack up?

Apple’s new MacBook Pros

Apple pursued two fundamental goals with its new MacBook Pro models: 1) significantly update a business notebook family whose long-in-the-tooth capabilities were failing to keep up with customers’ requirements, and 2) surpass competitors, including Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft that had all delivered business notebooks with innovative, market leading features. That’s straightforward enough, but Apple erred by focusing on goal #2 and incorporating key features and design points that were out of keeping with its customers’ needs.

Those included ditching traditional USB ports, HDMI output, SD card reader and the much-loved MagSafe charger for USB-C ports with support for Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 high performance connectivity technology. The company also used Intel’s prior generation Skylake chips rather than current Kaby Lake Core CPUs and left memory options at the same 16 GB maximum (only available on the 15” model) as past gen MacBooks. Estimated battery life improved slightly from an estimated 9 to 10 hours.

However, Apple also raised the prices of its new notebooks by about 20%. What does that mean in real terms? Shelling out $1,499 buys the basic 13” MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i5 chip, 256GB of SSD storage, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. Toss in an extra $300 or $500 and you get the 13 inch model with two more USB-C/ Thunderbolt 3 ports, up to 512GB of SSD storage, the much-discussed Touchbar (a touch-sensitive, contextual display strip that replaces traditional function keys) and interactive Touch ID features.

Stepping up, $2,399 or $2,799 gets you the 15-inch model with an Intel Core i7 CPU, four USB-C/ Thunderbolt 3 ports, 512GB of SSD storage and the Touchbar and Touch ID features. The 15-inch MacBook Pro also includes AMD’s Radeon Pro 450 and 455 graphics cards with 2GB of memory which deliver up to 1 and 1.3 teraflops of graphics performance respectively.

What’s the downside? Eliminating USB, HDMI and SD ports means that users with peripherals or devices requiring those ports pay extra for adapters and cables to connect them. Buying a full set of Apple brand adapters would have set you back around $260 on the day of the launch.

However, vocal backlash from critics, many of them deeply committed Apple fans, appears to have impressed the company. Over the weekend, Apple lowered the cost of its own USB-C adapters by as much as 50%, and dropped the prices of the third-party adapters it sells by about 25%.

That softens the financial blow new MacBook Pro owners will suffer, at least somewhat. However, they still face paying a substantial premium for MacBook Pro solutions whose business value is either unknown or appears nominal.

Microsoft’s new Surface solutions

In contrast, Microsoft took a far more practical two-fold approach in updating its Surface family: 1) sizably expand the technical capabilities of the Surface Book, and 2) expand the Surface portfolio with products and features supporting new capabilities.

To the first point, Microsoft’s new Surface Book mixes both new and old technologies. Like Apple did with the new MacBook Pro, Microsoft chose past gen Intel Skylake CPUs and offers 8GB or 16GB memory options. The new solutions all leverage topline Intel Core i7 processors and offer three SSD storage options: 256GB, 512GB and 1TB. All, not surprisingly, utilize the latest version of Microsoft Windows 10 with 10-point multi-touch 13.5-inch PixelSense displays.

But the new products also offer significant enhancements over past Surface Books. All three models feature NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M graphics cards with 2GB of memory, leading to 2X better graphics performance to roughly 1.9 teraflops over past gen Surface Books. Battery life is also notably improved by around 30% (by expanding battery capacity) to roughly 15 hours on a single charge.

What about expanding the line with new capabilities? Microsoft also announced a new Surface Studio desktop model with a 28-inch multi-touch PixelSense display. Like the Surface Book, users can leverage Surface Pens for drawing or other input tasks, but they’ll also have access to the Surface Dial, a new peripheral that offers tools designed to enhance the performance of specific graphics applications.

Microsoft partners, including BlueBeam, Drawboard, Mental Canvas, Siemens PLM, Silicon Benders, Smith Micro and StaffPad have already optimized their software to take advantage of the Surface Dial. The new Surface Studio is available for pre-order and comes in three configurations offering Intel Core i5 or i7 CPUs, 1TB-2TB storage, 8GB, 16GB or 32GNB memory and NVIDIA GPUs with 2GB or 4GB of memory. Prices range from $2,999 to $4,199.

Final analysis

What should business customers conclude from these announcements? In the case of the new MacBook Pro, Apple has delivered notably improved flagship products that require business customers to make sizable commitments to and investments in new and emerging technologies.

If a company is actively contemplating a migration to Thunderbolt 3 and related peripheral devices, new MacBook Pro solutions will be attractive options, especially for the graphics professionals who are a sizable portion of Apple’s professional customer base. But many or even most businesses that aren’t considering such a move and have little need for the higher data throughput offered by Thunderbolt 3 are likely to find the updated solutions less than compelling.

In fact, the new MacBooks may have reached a point where premium pricing fails to deliver the levels of performance innovation Apple’s customers expect it to deliver.

In stark contrast, Microsoft’s new and updated Surface solutions reflect a company deeply engaged with and knowledgeable about its business customers’ critical needs and future requirements. The enhancements offered by the Surface Book models touch both technical and practical sweet spots that will be appreciated by a wide variety of business organizations and end users.

The eventual impact of the new Surface Studio is impossible to state at this point. Other large-scale, touch-enabled devices have failed to excite corporate clients but Microsoft’s decision to focus the new solutions on specific creative tasks and to leverage its partnerships with key business ISVs could help the company more accurately locate and crack new market opportunities.

Overall, these latest Surface solutions highlight the remarkable degree to which Microsoft has found and is exercising its insights into business innovation.

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