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Microsoft, Apple, and device discontinuity

Microsoft argues that the Surface will save you from having to buy a MacBook and an iPad, but its integrated tablet comes at the price of a disjointed user experience.

The Surface Pro 3 is a tablet that can handle the kinds of software that needs a PC.

A major theme at Microsoft's introduction of Surface Pro 3 was a refinement of a message that the company has been pushing for third-party hybrid portable computers since the release of Windows 8. Why deal with the hassle of deciding between a MacBook and iPad or the expense of buying both when you could have the intimacy of a tablet experience and the productivity of a laptop experience in Surface Pro?

The answer to that rhetorical question is influenced by Apple's history and justified by its philosophy. But it also raises challenges to Apple about working with both a MacBook and iPad.

Let's start with why the MacBook and iPad are separate devices and why they remain so. Steve Jobs once confirmed at an industry conference that Apple had begun work on what would become the iPad before it developed the iPhone. After the iPhone had been released, though, and the company looked toward the tablet, it faced a choice. It could have pursued the path it did by scaling up the iPhone's software or brought forward the legacy of Mac apps with some touch APIs.

One might chalk up the choice it made to a fundamental difference between Apple's and Microsoft's historical business models. Apple makes money from devices, after all, and benefits from customers purchasing two (or three in the case of an iPhone) rather than one. However, the company could have created (and still could create) a Yoga-like hinge and a touch screen on the MacBook Air or made the screen detachable and added a bunch of touch APIs to preserve and carry forward legacy Mac applications. It could have called this the MacBook Touch and charged a high premium for it the way it did for the first Retina MacBook.

Casting aside the debate about the touch-screen ergonomics on a notebook, such a device might not have had to contend with the dual personality of Windows' Modern/desktop dichotomy. Windows apps such as Office and the forthcoming version of Photoshop that was shown at the Surface Pro 3 launch have a degree of touch-enablement. However, they are not touch-optimized. Microsoft essentially concedes it's not enough, which is why it is working on a Modern version of Office for Windows. (Indeed, if an app is not "modern" -- and certainly isn't futuristic -- isn't it by default "dated"?)

In other words, Apple surely considered an approach similar to Microsoft's -- a touch-enabled but backward-compatible Mac versus a touch-optimized iPad would have involved a compromised experience, one that Microsoft is working to improve gradually through its own improvements to Windows and -- more importantly -- by encouraging third parties to develop apps that perhaps one day will provide a virtually completely "Modern" experience.

Instead, Apple drew a line in the sand and said the iPad is where we will break compatibility and focus on a new class of apps. This is similar to how it started over from the very successful Apple II with the Lisa and then Mac with the exception that the company was able to reuse much more of the underlying OS foundation.

But despite it heralding the "post-PC era," Apple will continue to have one foot planted in the PC era, and that's the Mac. As it continues to develop it along with its portable iOS products like the iPad, its customers must content with some friction in working with multiple devices in comparison to one in the Surface. I'll dive into those challenges and some things Apple might do to alleviate them in my next column.