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Microsoft's Frank Shaw rips into new iPads and iWork pricecut


If there's one thing we know about Frank Shaw, Microsoft's Corporate VP of Communications, it's that he isn't afraid to speak his mind.

So with Apple announcing a range of new software and hardware this past Tuesday, Shaw couldn't help but try and pour some cold water on the Apple hype machine.

During Apple's media event this week, Tim Cook took some not-so-thinly veiled potshots at Microsoft's strategy with its line of Surface tablets. You know, the ones that are part laptop, part tablet.

Our competition is different: They're confused. They chased after netbooks, now they're trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they'll do next? I can't answer that question, but I can tell you that we're focused.

For added effect, Cook's statement was accompanied by a photo of a pretzel-like highway sign. The implication was obvious -- Microsoft is lost and lacks any semblance of direction.

Shaw, however, isn't buying what Cook is selling.

Since we launched the Surface line of tablets last year, one of the themes we've consistently used to talk about them is that they are a terrific blend of productivity and entertainment in one lightweight, affordable package. In fact, we're confident that they offer the best combination of those capabilities available on the market today.

That's not an accident, it's exactly what we set out to design. We saw too many people carrying two devices around (one for work and one for play) and dealing with the excess cost, weight and complexity that "dual carrying" entails. We believed that there was another, better way: A tablet built to offer great touch-based entertainment activities combined with a productivity powerhouse that helps people crank through the stuff they have to get done before they watch zombies or flick birds.

A jab at Angry Birds?! Okay, now it's personal.

Continuing, Shaw writes that creating a tablet for content consumption is a piece of cake. Creating a tablet that allows one to be productive, however, is much more challenging. And therein, Shaw articulates, is where the Surface really shines.

The only problem for Microsoft is that the iPad is much, much more than a device simply used to "watch zombies or flick birds." On the contrary, there are innumerable examples of the iPad being used in all sorts of content creation and productivity contexts.

So sure, there may be no full Microsoft Office equivalent for the iPad, but Apple's business model isn't centered on catering to a niche group of business professionals who absolutely demand the full and unmitigated power of Microsoft Office.

Oddly enough, Shaw goes on to say that Microsoft is uniquely positioned to deliver a productivity-enabled tablet because "Microsoft understands how people work better than anyone else on the planet."

Say what now?

Shaw explains that because Microsoft has years of experience selling Windows and Office across the globe, it, and it alone knows what features people want and need to be productive when using a tablet.

According to Shaw, that feature list is about three items deep; Microsoft Office, a keyboard and the ability to "use apps and documents side by side."

Conveniently, they just also happen to be three features which differentiate Microsoft's Surface tablets from the most popular tablet on the market -- Apple's iPad.

It's no secret that consumers aren't shy about indicating which features they care about most. They relay their opinions with cold hard cash, and the reality is that the metaphorical Surface cash registers up in Redmond continue to remain rather spacious.

Indeed, it wasn't all that long ago that Microsoft instituted a price cut on the Surface Pro due to less-than-stellar sales.

Returning to Shaw's skewering of Apple, he also takes time to scoff at iWork.

In that spirit, Apple announced yesterday that they were dropping their fees on their "iWork" suite of apps. Now, since iWork has never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought, it's hardly that surprising or significant a move. And it doesn't change the fact that it's much harder to get work done on a device that lacks precision input and a desktop for true side-by-side multitasking.

But you wouldn't know that from reading some of the coverage I've read today. Perhaps attendees at Apple's event were required to work on iOS devices that don't allow them to have two windows open for side-by-side comparisons, so let me help them out by highlighting the following facts:

• The Surface and Surface 2 are less expensive than the iPad 2 and iPad Air respectively, and yet offer more storage, both onboard and in the cloud.

• ... come with full versions of Office 2013, including Outlook, not non-standard, non-cross-platform, imitation apps that can't share docs with the rest of the world.

• ... offer additional native productivity enhancing capabilities like kickstands, USB ports, SD card slots and multiple keyboard options.

• ... include interfaces for opening multiple windows, either side by side or layered to fit the way most people actually work.

So, when I see Apple drop the price of their struggling, lightweight productivity apps, I don't see a shot across our bow, I see an attempt to play catch up.

In articulating why iWork isn't up to snuff with Microsoft Office, Shaw is effectively winning an argument that Apple's isn't interested participating in. Apple isn't trying to to transform iWork into a feature-by-feature replacement for Office. Instead, it's offering an attractive and free alternative for users who simply don't need 90 percent of the features that Office offers.

Is Apple playing catch up? No doubt about it. But remember that Apple in this case has everything to gain, while Microsoft has everything to lose.

Daring Fireball's John Gruber nails it when he writes:

Any gains in iWork usage are just icing on the cake for Apple - but any corresponding loss in Office usage (or perhaps better put, Office dependency) is very bad news for Microsoft.

Shaw is correct in stating that consumers absolutely want and are drawn to productivity software. Where he falls off track is in assuming that productivity software begins and ends with apps like Word and Excel, titles I'd wager that most folks associate with boredom, at best.

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