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Can Microsoft Give Apple A Run For The Money In Touch Computing?

Posted by: Peter Burrows on March 3, 2009

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off the company’s touch-screen based “Surface” computer in May 2007, just a month before the launch of the iPhone. But since then, Apple has dominated the touch revolution so thoroughly that it might as well have copyrighted it (or patented it—but that’s another story).

That’s certainly the case when it comes to the critical question of application support. So far, there are well over 10,000 applications for the iPhone and iPod touch that use Apple’s multi-touch technology. According to CNET’s Dawn Kawamoto, just 120 companies have created apps for the Surface.

No doubt, this isn’t a totally fair comparison, given that the iPhone is a mass market mobile device, while the Surface is a $12,500, 30-inch table-top style device that’s available only for commercial purposes. According to Microsoft, it’s available only “in the areas of financial services, retail, hospitality, health care and automotive.”

Nonetheless, Microsoft is keeping at it. It just expanded distribution to twelve countries. And real estate giant Coldwell Banker just introduced a new app for the platform. Here it is.

And going forward, Microsoft is pushing touch as one of the marquee new capabilities in Windows 7, the next big release of its flagship operating system.

Clearly, both companies have the capability to bring touch to the large form factor device—the laptop PC, the desktop PC, even the TV. They have very different advantages, as usual. Microsoft has scale, a massive distribution network of retailers and other partners, and a head-start. But Apple brings consumer marketing and product panache, great interface design, and pure momentum. Indeed, a major reason Apple lost the PC wars for all those years was lack of developer support. I don’t think that will happen this time around.

Reader Comments


March 4, 2009 8:32 AM

Apple is a brilliant company that has made a lot of money.

However, their decisions on margin although good for business; was not good for the war.

That's the real reason why PC's are on 95% of the desktops. Their simply cheaper to buy. Users, purchasing managers, families all see the up-front costs associated with purchasing anything including a computer. If they perceive that they can get the same or slightly less bang for less dollars then they are going to buy it.
Sizzle may sell, but the bottom line is the bottom line. Apple has plenty of sizzle, but most of us will go for a couple of cheese burgers over the expensive steak if we are paying...


March 4, 2009 10:21 AM

The title is almost laughable... its a proposition that is not even remotely possible.... typical FUD

PS—BigMac... enjoy your cheese burgers... its obvious that your computing time is not important to you.

Alan Smith

March 4, 2009 10:56 AM

Mr. BigMac,
You are completely wrong. It is MS that has shown sizzle and no substance. Their touchscreen computer is not even really a touchscreen as movement is tracked by a number of cameras and not the actual contact on the screen. MS has copied Apple in their OS, iPod, Quicktime software (they actually stole code from Apple. Steve Jobs negotiated with MS when he came back to Apple and got MS to continue developing MS Office for the Mac as a result), the AP store for iPhone and iTouch, even the iPhone interface, and now the retail stores. Who has the cheeseburger and who has the sizzle. What MS has done is lock in vendors and IT departments to their OS and threaten lack of support if they shopped for another OS. Look at MS's ventures into consumer capitalism and everything has been a failure. Even the XBox loses money. Apple is gaining markey share, is the touted company, MS is laying people off. Now who is wining the war now?


March 4, 2009 11:15 AM

Apple didn't lose the OS war back then because of price alone. The fact that windows had more hardware and software choices made a big difference. Today the computer market is different. Apple is not looking for pure market share for the Mac. They see the Mac having a small share say 10% but much higher margins then Dell who struggles to survive giving away pc's. Dell did well when the market for pc's was growing rapidly and a small margin on many boxes worked. But to keep selling they keep lowering the price and the market is getting saturated. There should always be a space for a lower volume high end player. Apple fills that space well and as the balance sheet to prove it works better then selling to everyone. Dell is like GM in market share and Apple is like BMW in market share. Which companies would you want to own? Dell and GM or Apple and BMW?

Steve W, Indialantic FL

March 4, 2009 11:21 AM

I remember when Microsoft introduced the "Surface" two years ago. What you are showing us today is two pure touchscreen applications that do not take advantage of the "Surface" technology. Has Microsoft given up on the "Surface", and decided to climb aboard the touchscreen bandwagon?

BTW: The reason PCs outsell Macintoshes is that, in the business world, the buyer isn't the user.

Todd Charske

March 4, 2009 11:25 AM

Microsoft has never been able to compete in terms on technology with Apple. Unfortunately Microsoft owns Apples in terms of how to run a business/market a product/and almost everything else/Sell a product.

Todd Charske


March 4, 2009 11:25 AM

Use an apple for two weeks, then begin making a comment, Big Mac. Otherwise bequiet.


March 4, 2009 11:31 AM

"However, their decisions on margin although good for business; was not good for the war."

Um, actually it had more to do with MS screwing a DOS developer out of his invention to cut a deal with IBM to begin the establishment of their monopoly.


March 4, 2009 11:34 AM


Your comments actually would seem to go against Microsoft in terms of this article. Apple has created a highly desirable product which is very competitively priced and is reshaping the cell-phone market. Meanwhile, Microsoft has demoed a very expensive product with little market potential which seems to solve problems which no one really cares about.
In this case, I would argue that MS is the one selling sizzle with no steak and Apple is selling steak (the iPhone) and cheeseburgers (the App store).

As you say the bottom line is the bottom line and Apple's bottom line has been increased by over $4 billion per year thanks to thanks to its touch interface.

Please tell us how much Microsoft's bottom line has improved thanks to Surface sales and service.

BTW, insanely great margins were only one reason Apple screwed up in the 80s and 90s. Horrendous management and forecasting, dependence on Microsoft, Adobe, etc. and the inability for IT types to see anything but an IBM/Microsoft solution to their problems were some of the other important reasons. another.

Apple doesn't have those problems any more.


March 4, 2009 11:50 AM

You imply that Microsoft showed off the Surface before Apple introduced the iPhone, hence set some sort of precedent. Not so, based on your own dates. Apple actually demonstrated the iPhone in January 2007, even though the device wasn't available for sale until June.

Regarding the overall point of the story, Microsoft has demonstrated time and time again a complete and utter lack of understanding of the consumer market. I don't expect this to change as they battle the iPhone. MS is a has-been technology company. They just don't realize it yet.

HD Boy

March 4, 2009 12:07 PM

Well, I for one want the best-tasting, most appealing cheeseburger I can find -- ideally, one made with additive-free, corn-fed beef, aged cheddar cheese and a fresh bun. The cheapest burger made up of frozen mystery meat with all sorts of food additives, fake cheese and a pretty but tasteless bun won't cut it to those of us who value presentation, quality, taste AND nutrition.

Oh, and I like a nice computer too. There you have it. Apple, Inc. is set to redefine the "Big Mac" -- and yet another entire industry.

The reality is that you really don't have to go through life only eating cheap fast food while sitting in front of a grease-stained, third-rate computer. A good burger doesn't have to be more expensive, and often isn't. Besides, when you factor in health costs, that cheap, fast food burger doesn't really save you any money in the long run.

Where have I heard these arguments before?


March 4, 2009 1:21 PM

You Apple wannabes are so hilarious!!! Apple is Sizzle. Apple is also the sidshow barker, amything to sell the product. Lie, cheat and steal their way, then fade away when there is problems.


March 4, 2009 3:07 PM

Things have really turned around, but the business types still see Apple as behind, and give all credit to MS for tech they never had any part in developing.

iPhone has already changed the world. It's only the true believers, the insanely non-technical types that keep praising Micorsoft for, well, nothing. (I am not talking about Mac users here! The 'business users' who think their work is so important when in fact it is trivial. What has Microsoft done besides lock 80% of the dullest users into one OS that only runs on the lowest, generic hardware? Nothing! Move commands from one MS menu to the next doesn't count. Copying Apple's every move (not just Microsoft is guilty of this!) doesn't count either.

Surface is a joke, but Microsoft isn't laughing, Apple is.


March 4, 2009 3:25 PM

Sad that BigMac took an opportunity to write something unrelated to the topic, which sent the adversaries scrambling for their torches.

On topic, the Coldwell Banker app looks no better than the Trulia app on the iPhone. Did they license the app from Trulia's developers? While it looks nice and all, cause you can rotate images, it's hardly as functional as taking your app with you in your pocket, and hitting the GPS "locate" button to look for houses for sale around you.

MS has no ecosystem yet for touch apps, and is only getting further and further behind.


March 4, 2009 3:44 PM

i'm going to go off-topic for a second (you have been warned):

why does any conversation regarding microsoft and apple always have to become a pissing match between fanboys? both companies do (or have done) things well for their target markets. they aren't giants for no reason.

people use windows largely because it's what they've always used. i would propose (as i'm sure that many of you would, albeit in a grotesquely and unnecessarily argumentative way) that microsoft's more recent products don't offer as much substance as their older ones do. but then, they still don't really have to. i bet you can all name at least 10 people that you know that use windows on a regular basis.

now personally, i love windows xp. i've heard that people have had problems with it, but neither i or many of the people that i know have had major problems with it. maybe i had just the right hardware setup, or maybe i've used windows long enough to know how to deal with it's short-comings. whatever the reason, it works for me, just as it does for a large portion of the consumer market.

apple, on the other hand, seems to put out decent products pretty regularly. i like a lot of their software and product design. i don't care for their customer support model, but that's largely because i'm a diy-er. I don't want to make an appointment to fix my computer; i'll google around and fix it myself. (i also don't think that it's ethical to basically force your customers into purchasing a re-named warrenty i.e. "apple care", but that's just me. it could be argued that they make up for that with convenience. i disagree, but that's my opinion.)

which brings me to linux. linux isn't as polished as the other two options in some areas, but it does what i want it to and offers the level of customization that i believe that i should have. i believe that if i pay for something, it's mine and i should be able to use whichever software i choose.

rant over. :)


March 4, 2009 4:58 PM

At one time, MS had business acumen (legal and illegal), and built itself a monopoly. For the last ten years, it's been coasting, trying to be all things to all people, with no integrated or coherent strategy to speak of.

Since 2000, Apple has been executing on a strategy. From OS X to Macs to app software to iPod to iTunes to iTunes Store to Safari to iPhone to AppStore, it's all part of one strategy, leading to an ecosystem where every product helps with another product. Apple saw the importance of mobile devices way back in 2000 when they embarked on iPod (note the name is i.POD, not i.MusicPlayer) and have been doing everything since then to develop a solid foundation from which to dominate the space. MS has been everywhere and succeeding nowhere within that same time frame.


March 4, 2009 5:07 PM

"Their touchscreen computer is not even really a touchscreen as movement is tracked by a number of cameras and not the actual contact on the screen."

There's actually some interesting ideas running around Microsoft in regards to image recognition via cameras which could create some interesting user interfaces.

Here's an obvious one: Imagine being able to scroll information on your cell-phone by making a "scroll motion" with your finger in front of the phoneor make an "OK symbol" rather than having to hit a button on the screen.

You get more space on the screen for information without having to deal with on-screen buttons which are always too small or too big. You conceivably don't have to worry about wearing gloves, no smeared screens, etc. etc.

The question, of course, is can Microsoft take this sort of technology and make it into a product (say, Windows Mobile 7) and work with phone builders to add the appropriate hardware to make it work? This will take lots of time and effort on Microsoft's part.


March 4, 2009 5:16 PM

BigMac, I'm sure the 5-8 years of Microsoft having illegal monopoly contracts with computer manufacturers had absolutely no actual impact on their marketshare.


March 4, 2009 5:49 PM

@Peter: One-two-three-or-four-finger swiping, scrolling, pinching, stretching, etc, is not done with on-screen buttons on iPhone UI (or on a Mac touchpad). So that scroll motion or OK symbol could've been done with Apple's multi-touch as well, if Apple had determined it to be a useful gesture.

Robert Laughing

March 4, 2009 8:46 PM

When I stop Laughing, tell me again how MSFT is re-introducing it's 'Flagship Wheel,' and how it's gonna make the sun shine brighter....gawd, MSFT been at THIS for 30+ years - have they EVER gotten something "RIGHT" right out of the proverbial box, on time, working as "promised?" If it wasn't for the Natural Order of the Laws of Physics (A body at rest, tends to stay at rest...) American business would have DUMPED MSFT years ago.


March 4, 2009 9:00 PM

Do you think CrashPad would understand the one-finger gesture or would he have to fire up his Windows PC to understand one-finger gestures?

Jim Manico

March 4, 2009 10:06 PM

How many 10,000+ user organizations are considering moving to Apple? Very few.


March 5, 2009 9:08 AM

The Surface is not impressive in the least. It looks like 20 year technology with a slighty refined (directly copied from iPhone) UI. Its for "companies only", its atronomically priced, and it doesn't do anything. Its a low resolution HP touchsmart, laid down at an angle that prevents you from seeing what you're doing.

Windows 7? LOL who titles their NEXT BIG STEP #7? What are they going to get lucky this time and have people abandoning OSX in favor of Windows? Simply doesn't and will not happen.

Lil' Mac

March 5, 2009 10:10 AM

Microsoft doesn't have the ingenuity or creativity to make a more intuitive interface then apple. Apple invented the GUI for Pete's sake!!


March 5, 2009 11:19 AM


While not many 10,000+ orgs are switching to Macs, many are seeing more and more macs join the network. The company I work for used to have only a small number of macs in a creative group. Now, it is an option for anyone company-wide when their computers are refreshed. We are seeing about a 10-15% conversion to Macs. My company has over 300,000 employees, and 60,000 at my location.

Macs may not be taking over, but they are advancing and becoming normal in many orgs.


March 5, 2009 7:33 PM

When Microsoft won their OS monopoly Windows played no role in it. It was MS DOS that took over the market in the 80s. Windows merely inherited the empire from MS DOS 10 years later.

The reasons for MS DOS' success were first the IBM brand associated with the PC (people often seem to forget that) and second the lower cost of PCs compared to Macs.

However, at that time PCs were half the price of Macs, and they had sharply different hardware capabilities. Today the price difference is around 10 % and the hardware is basically the same.

heheheh can microsoft count?

March 6, 2009 12:06 AM

windows 7 lol has anyone actually stopped to think about that number hmm let me seee

windows 1.0 , 2.0, 2.1x, 3.0, 3.1, 95, 98, ME, NT 3.5, NT 3.51, NT 4.0, windows 2000, windows xp, vista, then now 7???? OMG someone cant count!

shouldn't it be Windows 14???

even if you don't include the . revisions it would still be 11 lol

windows 7 why did they name it that?

hey i know why they have called it that! because they have stolen all the technology from apple and apple is about to release 10.5.7 update and as windows 7 is a mac tech copy it will be about as good as the 10.5.7 update

after all windows 7 isn't really a new revision anyway just a .7 update to XP lol


June 26, 2009 6:59 AM

Macs are toys meant for playing around.
MS makes systems which caters to the needs of 99% of business supporting computing backbone of world. Ms needs to provide support, backword compatibility an innovation which is useful not for fiddling around like macs
where every new os doen't support the programs of the existing one.
MACs are useless and meant fot very limited use


August 6, 2009 11:35 AM

...MS and Apple are two parallel and consumer oriented companies . The pioneer in introducing Windows and its world-wide acceptance is no doubt MS.Due credit should go to that company. But MS needs restructuring at top level managerical cadres and infuse young blood too in it . New tyhinking and New Vision should be the Mantra for MS to make it vibrant .Talent is aplenty.Can MS act???

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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