Build 2016, which ended this past week, was Microsoft’s opportunity to show the world what, exactly, the company has been working on and how it fits into its broader vision.
We saw a lot: A new version of Windows 10, updates to Skype, a focus on bots, updates on HoloLens, and more. There were some notable omissions, like Windows Phone, but it was generally a fairly comprehensive affair.
One of the most interesting demos was Windows Ink, a set of products that augment the Surface Pro’s — or any other stylus-equipped tablet’s — abilities when it comes to getting creative.
According to Microsoft, Windows Ink puts the stylus “front and centre” by introducing the Ink Workspace, a hub of apps that all focus on different things that a stylus can do. For example, there is an app for note taking that can intelligently recognise words — like “tomorrow” — and perform actions based on that.
The focus on Ink is on both hardcore stylus users — which is basically artists and designers — but also people who use a pen and paper, which is basically everybody. By making the Surface easy to scribble notes on, Microsoft is signally that this product is ideal for almost everyone who has ever wanted to keep something organised.
While it’s unlikely that Microsoft is going to replace paper — anymore than email has, anyway — it does seem likely that the high-end users will appreciate the changes and look seriously at getting a Surface tablet.
This user base, which is motivated to buy new hardware and uses the device extensively everyday, is also being targeted by Apple, with the iPad Pro.
The Pro, which features a 12.9-inch screen and runs iOS, comes with an (optional) accessory called the Apple Pencil. Like the Surface Pen, the Pencil can be used to scribble notes or draw beautiful pictures. Apple has promoted both uses heavily, even launching an advertising campaign that focused on the work of artists using an iPad.
But Microsoft has done something really cool with Ink. The workspace, which can be activated from anywhere inside Windows 10, has a ruler — which can be ‘moved’ with a finger while drawing with the Pen — and other tools that artists would find very useful.
As is the Microsoft way, the functionality can be built into other third-party apps, like Adobe Photoshop, with just two lines of code, according to the company. (It’s unclear if it is actually two lines, or if that is an exaggeration.)
Microsoft as a company is changing, with an increased focus on getting as many people as possible to use its software — even if it isn’t on Windows. The iPad Pro, for example, can run all of Microsoft’s main apps in the Office suite.
This puts Microsoft in an odd position: It is simultaneously rooting and competing with the iPad Pro.
However, when it comes to Ink the objective is very clear: Attract as many creative professionals to the Windows platform, and Surface, as possible. It’s obviously great for Microsoft if people use OneNote on an iPad, but it’s better if they use a Surface instead.
And, increasingly, the Surface is looking like a very attractive device, especially when compared to the iPad. Apps like Photoshop, which is the most accessible Adobe programme, are available on iOS but in a limited form. The Surface can run the full programme, thanks to Windows 10.
Many people have already made the case that iOS, which is also made to run on the iPhone, is impeding the iPad Pro’s success. Unlike with Windows 10, only Apple-approved software can be installed on the Pro making it annoying for people who use third-party propriety apps (which is a lot of people).
The openness of Windows, and Microsoft’s willingness to share its inventions and software, will be a real bonus when people are comparing the Surface Pro and iPad. Whereas as the Surface has all of the software you could possibly want, the iPad has only the newest or the sparkliest, which may not necessary be the best or what this hypothetical person uses.
The race is, of course, not over yet and there is an argument to be made that the Surface Pro is actually an iPad Pro + MacBook Pro which, when viewed in this way, makes the Surface even more compelling as it can be used to draw or as a tablet.
Many people doubted the Surface when it first launched and, after an initial write down of $900 million on unsold stock, it seemed they were right. However, Microsoft has hammered away and made a machine that is useable, well-designed, and has compelling software which, thanks to the Universal Windows Platform, becomes even better everyday.
It isn’t without its faults, of course, as some users found their units to be defective. (Some iPad Pro users found the same.) Microsoft was initially slow to act, but it eventually issues an apology and explained why, exactly, people’s tablets were going wrong.
Software like Ink makes the whole package more appealing and will, ultimately, put Microsoft in a good position to beat Apple.