On Wednesday, Apple announced new iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs as expected, and my write-up about the event will be available soon. But there was actually one surprise at the event that bears calling out: a key Microsoft executive appeared onstage to tout Office on Apple’s Surface-like iPad Pro.
It’s fair to say that the appearance of Microsoft corporate vice president Kirk Koenigsbauer was initially a bit confusing to the crowd of sycophants on hand to cheer Apple’s every announcement. But after an uncomfortable (and literal) moment of silence, it finally dawned on them that this wasn’t a repeat of Bill Gates’s infamous and ill-presented MacWorld Boston appearance in 1997. If anything, it was a role reversal, with Apple now the dominant party and Microsoft—a company that really knows productivity, as Apple’s Phil Schiller reminded the stunned audience—in the supplicant role.
For the legions of Apple fans, Microsoft was just a tiny part of the over-two-hour-long press conference, with the software giant offering up improved versions of its Office mobile apps for iPad—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, plus OneNote—that support the voluminous iPad Pro screen and its optional Apple Pencil (which is Apple’s version of the Surface Pen).
For you and I, however, Koenigsbauer’s appearance at the event was a bitter pill of sorts. We can remind ourselves that Office on iPad is nowhere near as full-featured as the desktop versions of Office we can use on Windows, but that’s just a rationalization. Microsoft makes full-featured Office desktop apps for the Mac, too. And the iPad Pro version of Office is as good—indeed, appears to be better than—the similar Office mobile apps we get on Windows.
Koenigsbauer isn’t the first Microsoft executive to appear on stage at an Apple event since that awful 1997 mistake, and he isn’t even the first Office executive to do so. But his appearance Wednesday really drove home how much has changed since 1997. In the wake of damaging and focus-stealing antitrust battles and the resulting rise in mobile devices and cloud computing services, Microsoft is no longer the company it once was. And rather than control the platforms on which we consume personal computing services, Microsoft is now forced to assume a role it hasn’t played since the 1980’s: it is instead creating software that works on the dominant computing platforms of the day. Those platforms are Android and iOS.
There are worse fates, of course. And to be fair, Microsoft’s mobile productivity offerings—not just traditional Office apps like the ones we’ve seen so far, but also new apps and services that have been designed specifically for this new way to work—are excellent. If you can get over Microsoft’s lost platform status—and for some, myself included, that can be hard—and see what they’re doing without getting distracted by the past, it’s actually pretty interesting.
The thing is, it’s never that simple. And what sticks in my craw is that Koenigsbauer was on hand to help Apple promote the productivity capabilities of iPad Pro, a device that wouldn’t exist were Microsoft’s own Surface so popular. Indeed, just three years ago, Apple executives were making fun of Surface and the software that runs on it. And today, they are ripping it off. And Microsoft is helping them.
The iPad Pro is a hybrid device with an optional keyboard and stylus, just like Surface. That keyboard comes in the form of a cover that, like the one on Surface, connects magnetically. (Oddly, the Apple version is uglier and less elegant, but whatever.) If it is successful, it will compete with and perhaps defeat Surface in the market. And, again. Microsoft is helping them.
Koenigsbauer looked the part. He came out in an Eddy Cue-like outfit, looking suitably Bay Area-chic instead of typical middle-aged-white-guy Microsoft. That he was wearing an Apple Watch as well is perhaps additionally annoying but, hey, Microsoft makes Apple Watch apps too. (Of course it does.)
Most of the demo involved features we already know from Word, Excel and PowerPoint for iPad. The new stuff was the ability to run two Office apps side-by-side on iPad Pro in Slide Over or Split View—a feature of iOS, not Office—and some Apple Pencil capabilities. (Apple Pencil cannot be used for handwriting; it’s a drawing tool only. So Surface retains a number of advantages, at least for now.)
These changes will be coming to the Office mobile apps on iOS when iPad Pro and iOS 9 ship in the coming weeks, a related Microsoft blog post notes. And I’ll be writing more about what we can expect from Microsoft on Apple’s platforms soon too. For now, I’m just digesting what I witnessed from Microsoft on stage yesterday, and what this means for the future. And despite being fully aware of these changes for quite some time, I have to admit that the whole thing was a bit unsettling.