Tortoise meets hare in new product releases from Microsoft and Apple

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Last week both Microsoft and Apple released new input devices: a puck and a bar.

One day before Apple's Macbook event, Microsoft announced the Microsoft Surface Studio. It sports an industrial design that would fit right into a Black Mirror episode. It's basically a huge touch screen that can cantilever down to a shallow angle. It then becomes a bright, interactive table.

But it was a new input device for the computer that is the most interesting -- the Surface Dial. The Dial is a physical control knob the size of a hockey puck. Peripherals like the Dial have existed before -- the Griffin PowerMate comes to mind. But those precursors were often wired and none interacted with a computer's screen directly. The Dial does. 

If you place the Dial on the Surface Studio's display, a user interface blooms around its circumference. It could be a colour spectrum or a volume control. The Dial allows artists to change the width of a stroke as they draw on the screen with a stylus in the other hand.

The interaction of a physical object on a big display surface isn't new to Microsoft. It introduced the idea years ago with the Surface. That's not the most recent Surface tablets from Microsoft. Those took the name from a larger, earlier big brother.

The original Surface was a coffee table-sized computer that let users interact with it directly. In demos a glass could be placed on a screen and information about its contents appear. A business card laid on it would yield a photo and additional information about its owner.

The big Surface never made it beyond demos, a few trade shows and the occasional science centre. But, it paved the way to the Surface Studio.

The day after the Surface Dial was announced, Apple put on its own show where it revealed the new, and long, long overdue, Apple MacBook lineup.

Again, the most interesting thing about the devices was a new input tool, called the Touch Bar. The Bar is a thin, high-resolution colour multitouch screen that sits at the top of the MacBook's keyboard. It replaces the function key row and allows software developers to use the screen to display ad hoc controls, sliders, timelines and even thumbnails of images.

It's Apple's way of doing exactly what Microsoft did -- provide a viable touch interface to augment the usual keyboard, mouse and stylus.

But, the two companies have very different approaches. For Microsoft the main screen of a desktop computer or laptop is meant to be touched and interacted with. For Apple, that multitouch large screen only works on a tablet. It considers multitouch laptop and desktop screens as ergonomic nightmares. So, the touch bar is a good compromise. It gives users a touchscreen and a clear untouchable main screen.

Here's the problem I see with that approach. It's clear that Apple is moving to some sort of multitouch future for keyboards. It already has virtual keyboards on its tablets and phones. It has already provided limited tactile (haptic) feedback on its latest iPhones. It has progressively made its keyboard keys thinner and thinner. So, the Touch Bar can only be seen as the first baby step towards a purely haptic, multitouch glass keyboard.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, with its Surface Studio has presented a vision of the future that looks more like the future will be. It is more fully formed and more gutsy than the Apple approach. It also may well be folly. The Surface Studio is aimed at high-end creatives. If it doesn't hit it out of the park for them the Surface Studio will face the same fate as the bigger, older Surface. There are some warning signs in that direction; the drawing is apparently laggy and there is noticeable parallax between where the stylus is and where the drawing appears. So, it may well be merely a "halo" device or a concept car more than a real product.

But Apple is taking its own kind of risks. The Touch Bar is only available on the highest-end MacBooks and even then, only when a user doesn't opt for an external keyboard. It is also counting on software developers to embrace the Bar. In taking a slow, iterative approach, Apple may be lapped by Microsoft, a company that seems to have found its mojo again. So, it might be a case of go big, or go home. It certainly seems that the tech press generally feels Microsoft won the new product announcement battle last week.

We'll see if the tortoise beats the hare or the puck trumps the bar in the years ahead.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Christina Rogers/flickr

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