Commentary Laptops

11 reasons why Apple and Adobe should fear the new Microsoft

Commentary: The mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft's Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, as well as its recent Windows 10 S debut, make the competition seem very behind the times.

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It looks to me like Microsoft has wrestled control of our creative future from Apple and Adobe.

When you combine Microsoft's two most recent updates of its Windows 10 operating system -- the first Creators Update and the just-announced Fall Creators Update -- with its aggressive work in mixed-reality and computing-related hardware, it looks like Windows is becoming the go-to platform for creative work and cross-device productivity.

I'm not saying "OMG Apple and Adobe are doomed!" Of course I don't believe that. Apple makes those popular phones and tablets you've probably heard of. Plus we don't know what Apple's got up its sleeve for its own WWDC developer conference next month, or what secret projects it may delight us with.

And Adobe has diversified significantly, with a huge chunk of its business coming from the tools that let marketers track and drip-market to you as well as analyze the footprints you leave in your travels around the web (Marketing Cloud). That's in addition to the Creative Cloud applications like Photoshop, which most people think is Adobe.

Also, it does produce some of the best professional editing tools available. However, while it benefits from improvements in the operating system, it suffers by comparison when Microsoft improves the creative process in ways Adobe should have been doing but probably can't because its users mire the interfaces in the past and the business model puts its tools beyond the reach of the nonprofessional.

I'm not saying all these changes are win-win. The data Microsoft's collecting on you -- Microsoft Graph -- is at the core of almost all its recent development activities, and I think Microsoft has just accelerated the demise of your privacy. (I'm looking forward to reading the updated privacy policies.)

Microsoft is doing its best to build a walled garden like Apple, just one that encompasses a whole lot more territory. If you can't see the walls, does it matter that they exist? For a lot of people who aren't me, the answer to that is no.

But I do see a lot of important ways in which Apple and Adobe have ceded ground to Microsoft, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This time, Microsoft changes the interface

Microsoft has a flourishing Xbox platform, which enabled it to bring aspects of game design -- such as the use of light, depth and motion physics -- into the interface tools informing its new Fluent Design System. In other words, you should be seeing easier to use, more engaging interfaces. It's been a while since Apple's interface design moved the needle on a large scale.

Apple has to play catch-up

All the recent big advances in MacOS are concentrated on desktop-to-mobile cross-platform capabilities like Continuum and Siri, which Microsoft has done its best to emulate in the Fall update. But beyond that, Microsoft is aggressively tackling areas that Apple is publicly ignoring, such as mixed reality (a combination of VR and augmented reality).

Windows Mixed Reality developer kits are available for preorder now and are scheduled to ship this summer. Relatively inexpensive headset packages are set to ship in time for the winter holidays, including a new design of motion controllers for interacting with a virtual environment. Even if Apple debuts similar tools at WWDC, there probably won't be hardware and software ready to go any time soon.

Now Playing: Watch this: Microsoft introduces VR motion controllers for Windows...
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Pro capabilities are just a memory for Apple

Apple abandoned its creative professionals years ago and instead seems to have spent the past few years concentrating on making all its notebooks thinner rather than more powerful or more useful, and trying to convince itself that the iPad Pro would replace them anyway.

In contrast, Microsoft has created innovative devices like the Surface Pro to jump-start new hardware designs, supported them with OS-based touch and ink capabilities, encouraged the development of powerful new systems and supported veteran workstation builders like HP.

But for Mac Pro devotees who've bemoaned the lack of updates, as well as the impractical design of the 2013 model (of which I have firsthand experience), Apple announced a minor refresh of the desktop system earlier this year and promised more in the future. Pros can't live on promises.

Apple only has a pencil

Even if you think the Apple Pencil is Michelangelo's stylus, ubiquity is going to win here, especially now that Microsoft has streamlined the way styluses interact with software in the fall update. Yes, the Microsoft Dial isn't an awesome input accessory, but Apple's Touch Bar will likely be underutilized while Microsoft has a billion partners willing to step into the breach and innovate. And because Apple has no support for inking, it has no handwriting-recognition engine, which leaves a hole in its skill set.

Apple talks mostly to itself

Apple's tools concentrate on making software that links... Apple devices. Microsoft's early failure in the phone business has forced it to embrace development for both iOS and Android, making capabilities like Microsoft's Cloud Clipboard, which theoretically will make it possible to paste from Windows to any device and vice versa.

Now Playing: Watch this: Microsoft debuts Windows Story Remix to edit and organize...
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Microsoft tells the story

Given Apple's lack of mixed-reality action, this isn't surprising. Microsoft's Fall Creator Update debuts an application, the rather boringly titled Microsoft Story Remix, that serves to highlight all the new, system-level capabilities available to developers for building the next generation of mixed-reality applications -- which, remember, will work on Windows 10 2-in-1 tablets, not just desktops. Much of Story Remix, um, remixes capabilities we've seen in other products. But it also lets you integrate 3D objects that you can anchor to moving subjects -- you can anchor ink as well -- and to automatically and intelligently revise based on a selection of a different subject to highlight within a composition. It can also incorporate videos and photos shot by friends on their iPhone or Android device.

Most of the automation relies on what Microsoft Graph knows about you, including analysis of your photos and videos, to intelligently choose its themes, clips and photos. It can import a couple of standard 3D file formats, as well as take scenes you've created in Paint 3D. As an application, it sounds cool; as an indicator of what you'll be able to do in other applications, it sounds even cooler. And I can't help but wonder if some of this will make it into Microsoft's gaming foundation. I can't tell you how many times I've seen companies attempt to make 3D "easy" and failed. The missing ingredient: operating system support.

Microsoft offers developers candy

Thanks to Microsoft Graph and Cortana, the company is seemingly giving devs access to a huge amount of data about users and unprecedented ability to market to them directly. For example, when you start reading something on your laptop but don't finish, your phone -- iPhone or Android -- will be able to poke you and ask if you want to continue reading. Cortana just became the cross-platform nag you never knew you wanted. (You give it your phone information in the new Phone settings panel on Windows 10.)

But it also gives the site or developer the ability to pop up one of those annoying "Please download our app for a better reading experience!" messages. Provided the app is in the Windows app store, that is. In other words, Microsoft has now made it easier to hound you on whatever platform you're on, even if it's not Windows. I'm sorry; I meant provide a better experience for you. This is candy for software companies.

Adobe just looks old in comparison

Adobe's current applications are woefully behind on mixed reality; it's 360-degree video editing is sort of blah, its Project Felix 3D model interaction interface is old-fashioned, somewhat difficult to use, works only with stills and -- oh yeah -- it's not meant for you. Microsoft's expanded API will let developers more easily build novel applications with far less user baggage attached to them. Adobe owns the pros now, but it's in danger of losing the pros of the future.

Adobe and Apple are out of sync

One of the big attractions of Creative Cloud is the actual cloud aspect of it. But Adobe's file syncing implementation for CC is awful. You have to sync everything or nothing, which means sucking up a lot of space on your local drive. Plus there's no way to meaningfully organize your files when you view them online and you can only see files related to the account you're logged into. (And I've tried, but Google Drive's implementation is meh, and juggling multiple accounts and selectively synchronizing are both excessively difficult.)

Microsoft's OneDrive updates fix the syncing issues of the others; you can sync selectively, and it will download a file only on the first access. And it's more likely that the people you're sharing files with will be using the same operating system than have access to a pricey Adobe cloud subscription or use the same storage service like Box or Dropbox. As for Apple, iCloud sort of works on Windows if you want to sync files across platforms, but it's really geared toward Apple-happy friends and families on one end and large corporations on the other, with little in the middle.

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Microsoft knows where you've been and takes you back

The new Timeline task history, a cross-device-capable card-based list of what you've done recently, lets you quickly jump back to, say, the project you were working on yesterday. That looks like it can streamline a design (or any) workflow immensely, especially if software developers can customize the information that appears on the card and what happens when you click on it. I still think a most frequently used option would be more useful, though.

Microsoft wins the kids...and therefore the future

Want to teach kids how to code? Apple invented an entirely new language (Swift), while Microsoft embraces existing tools kids already know how to use, like Codebuilder for Minecraft in Windows 10 S. As much as I dislike some aspects of Windows 10 S, as a way to get cheap computers into schools, it's a lot more practical than iPads. Even the conceptual graphics tools Microsoft is delivering are better and cheaper than Adobe's for kids, especially those at underfunded schools.

What will Apple bring at WWDC?

Naturally, there's still time for Microsoft to blow it. The initial Creators Update removed options (have you tried to disable Windows Defender on Windows 10 Home lately?). And of course, there's the browser-and-Bing lockdown in the newly minted Windows 10 S. Plus, it remains to be seen how Microsoft is planning to use all that Graph data, especially given how easy the government is making it to monetize you. (According to a Microsoft spokesperson, those policies aren't publicly available yet.) But at the very least, Apple is going to have to pull some seriously impressive stuff out of its hat during WWDC to top the good parts of Windows 10.

Adobe didn't respond to a request for comment. Apple declined to comment.