The narrative that Apple is in trouble has been played out so often that it's a boring, tired cliché. And yet: in 2017 the world's biggest and most powerful technology company faces more challenges than it has since the success of the iPod eased it into the era of dominance and the iPhone delivered it the world.
No matter where you look, there are challenges. The iPhone is the most successful single product in history and yet, after an initial burst, is now beginning to slip back in China. The iPad seems to have lost its way a little, a great product which is struggling to grow. Apple TV's app support has been disappointing, with a lack of compelling reasons to buy over any one of the plethora of other options for occupying that HDMI port on the back of your TV.
And then there's the Mac. In any other company, the Mac would be seen as a roaring success, generating tens of billions of dollars every year for Apple. And yet Apple executives have apologised for the Mac Pro, the flagship of the range, the MacBook Pro with its Touch Bar has puzzled critics, and the iMac is looking long in the tooth.
Then there's the MacBook Air. You probably remember a couple of years ago a picture did the rounds of social media of a lecture theatre full of students with laptops open, and in almost every case those laptops shone with the Apple logo. Where once Windows dominated, now every classroom, coffee shop and quite a few business meeting rooms had Apple logos predominating. And in most cases, that logo shone from the lid of a MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air was brilliant. It was thin, light, and set the design trend for a generation of laptops. Go into a meeting with a PC product manager, and they would tell you at length how their ultraportable – which looked remarkably like a MacBook Air – was in fact better than a MacBook Air. In almost every case, they were wrong. The Air was loved.
Best of all, Apple did a most unusual thing: it cut the price. The Air entered the market as a premium-priced product, but gradually inched down until it was Apple's entry level machine. Soon, you could get one for as little as £799, which made it affordable.
And there the MacBook Air stayed. And we waited for an upgraded one. And waited. And waited.
What we got instead was the MacBook. Now the MacBook is a great machine. Where the Air was thin and light, the MacBook was thinner, lighter and, erm, less powerful. The MacBook was, and is, a great ultra-ultra-portable (I own one and love it) but it wasn't a retina Air, which was what people were asking for.
The retina Air doesn't have an Apple logo on it
People who have waited for a retina Air can now get one. But it's from Microsoft, and it's called the Surface Laptop. Take a look at the Surface Laptop, and it's clear that – like a hundred other ultraportables – it's inspired by the MacBook Air. But it forges its own design path, with a fabric covering around the keyboard and multiple colours.
Meanwhile the 13in MacBook Air still stays in the range as Apple's cheapest laptop, with an entry level model at £949. For £30 more you can get an entry level Surface Laptop, which looks equally cool and has a much better screen – or any one of a huge range of other Windows laptops.
Of course, there's some caveats to all this. Microsoft's Surface business just had a bad quarter, selling just $831m of product. Apple's Mac business, on the other hand, is on the up with $4.8bn of devices sold. And we need to avoid grading on a curve: although Apple hasn't updated the MacBook Air for over two years, Microsoft is also guilty of tardiness when it comes to updating its hardware. The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are both over 18 months old, although, compared to the MacBook Air, both are much more modern machines.
Windows 10 S is another stab at beating iOS
Arguably the most exciting feature of the Surface Laptop is Windows 10 S. This isn't the return of Windows RT, the misbegotten stepchild of Windows which ran on ARM but was only capable of running apps from the Windows Store. It's not something that's intended to run only on low powered devices – the Surface Laptop is a high-quality, full-specced machine – and you can if you choose to upgrade it to Windows 10 Pro. But Microsoft wants people to stick with 10 S rather than update, for some good reasons.
The first is security: there's an inherent level of security derived from only allowing software to be installed from a single source with curation and approval. It's not perfect – there's no such thing as perfect security – but it's a big improvement over the kind of malware-ridden environment of the “install from anywhere” ecosystem. It's also convenient for consumers.
Does this remind you of something? It should: iOS. The “app store only” model was pioneered by Apple with iOS, and it's been one of the most successful pieces of the iOS system. It's also the foundation of some of the success of the iPad.
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Microsoft's aim with Windows 10 S is to create an operating system which is as secure and convenient as iOS with the advantages of running Windows applications, and of being capable of upgrading to a “pro” OS if required. Scalable from smaller tablets to full-blown laptops, Windows 10 S could be the most effective counter to the potential of the iPad at home and in business, taking the best parts of the iOS experience and marrying them to the flexibility of Windows.
All of this adds up to more challenges for Apple. It's still not “in trouble”, but success is breeding challenges for the company, and it's clear now that Microsoft – with its strength in cloud, software and now hardware – is going to be the competitor which gives Tim Cook the most sleepless nights.
Make no mistake: Microsoft really is gunning for Apple with Windows 10 S and the Surface laptop.