There is a moment in the new ad for Microsoft's Surface Hub 2 in which a nondescript worker rotates the 50-inch screen — and the image spins in real-time from portrait to landscape. As features go for an expensive, enterprise-focused whiteboard, it's mostly pointless, just a bit of flash. But it's also the kind of wow moment that used to be the very last thing you'd associate with Microsoft, and it shows just how far the company has come.
The Hub 2 is the next iteration of Microsoft's collaborative whiteboard concept, designed almost exclusively for those Fortune 500 companies for whom the five-figure price tag seems reasonable. But the Hub is also another sign of how Microsoft's Surface team is consistently producing impressive, even lust-worthy products. What's more, it's one more indication that the company now seems to often be out-innovating Apple in hardware, creating entirely new categories — and surprisingly, making the once bulletproof iPhone-maker look a bit flat footed.
The Hub 2 is in essence an enormous tablet, hung on a wall, that functions as a collaborative device in meetings. Users can log in with a fingerprint reader attached to the side, and then manipulate images on the screen with touch, or draw or write with a pencil as one might with a whiteboard. The Hub also allows for videoconferencing and of course presentations, both of which can be controlled from a PC. It can even be linked together with up to three other hubs to form an even larger screen. The point is to both cater to and foster teamwork, providing a digital tool for what once took place on paper or whiteboards.
It is an admittedly niche product. But it also has a few clever design features. The rotation is handled by a mechanism that allows it to shift with the push of a finger. Microsoft has also partnered with accessories manufacturer Steelcase to allow users to arrange the screens how they like, whether on an easel or to have three or four screens spread around a room. Perhaps more importantly, the Hub works with Microsoft's existing products like OneNote, Office 365, and Teams, in an effort to solidify customer loyalty in the face of competitors like Slack and Google.
Yet, what's most interesting about the Hub 2 is that such a description is necessary in the first place. We know what laptops or tablets are. But truly new products require introductions because both the devices and their uses are unfamiliar and novel. We don't know what they are because nothing like them yet exists.
Microsoft's Surface line has a track record of doing this. On first glance, the Surface Book looked like a Macbook Pro clone — until Surface lead Panos Panay demonstrated the ability to entirely detach the screen and turn it into a tablet. The original Surface Pro has now finally settled on its function as a laptop replacement, and has gained considerable fan loyalty, mostly because of its multifunctionality as a note-taking device, a standard computer, or just a tablet for watching Netflix. As a result the Surface line has turned into a billion-dollar-a-quarter business — hardly Apple numbers, but significant nonetheless, and all predicated on the idea that new ways of computing are the way forward.
Meanwhile Apple has taken a decidedly different route, iterating upon the basic concepts of the Mac laptop and the iPad by making minor changes. That doesn't by any means make them bad products; to the contrary, they are often category leaders in performance, design, and ease of use. But it has also left Apple feeling like the conservative stalwart, happy to rake in billions from the iPhone and to let its other lines stagnate over the years.
That's not to say that Microsoft's history with Surface has been flawless. In fact, they have sometimes slipped where Apple excels: execution. The first couple of Surface devices were mediocre, while both the original Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 were plagued with reliability issues (Microsoft finally agreed to replace faulty Pro 4 units just this week). There's also the fact that while the devices are now greatly improved, Windows 10 still isn't as rock solid or as intuitive as iOS or MacOS, and still seriously lags as a tablet OS. Microsoft has work to do.
But as Apple developer Marco Arment argued, the fact that Microsoft continues to both innovate and iterate means that eventually they're going to truly knock one out of the park. And despite its commanding presence and almost unfathomable profitability, Apple's newly conservative approach may strangely leave them scrambling to catch up to Microsoft, a company that just a few years ago seemed like it was in its decline.
If right now you were to walk into a computer store, you'd likely see a familiar sight: a kid, pawing at the screen of a computer, expecting it to react. But if that child pokes at a Mac screen, nothing will happen; Apple has stubbornly insisted Macs don't need a touchscreen. It's not without reason. Redesigning an OS to be compatible with touch is no small undertaking, and Microsoft cannot claim to have perfected it either. But it's a sign of user expectation having gone one way and Apple having gone another. And as potential customers look out on what's new and hot, these days they are much more likely to be wowed by something coming out of Microsoft.
While the company that Bill Gates built still has work to do, it's those flashy moments that suggest that inspiration and innovation are no longer just the domain of Apple.