Microsoft has finally realised it needs to copy Apple - but does it have what it takes?

The Surface represents a new direction for the company.

With a couple of days to digest the news that Microsoft is launching – and, more importantly, building – an iPad competitor, a consensus seems to have emerged: Microsoft has learned from Apple.

The most obvious thing about the news is that Microsoft is kicking its OS licensees in the face. As John Gruber writes, although the move was driven by Apple, it is actually an attack on companies like HP, Dell and Asus which previously worked with the company and now find themselves in competition with it. Microsoft has made tablet operating systems since before Apple, and have always been in competition with the iPad; it just hasn't done a very good job of it.

The reason why is clear:

After 37 years, Microsoft agrees with Alan Kay: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

As Jason Kottke points out, to succeed in the tablet ecosystem requires more than Microsoft could promise as the provider of software only. An entire ecosystem needs to build around the tablet, from content provision and sister devices to an OS built for a specific hardware setup, rather than one-size-fits-all software, and that was something that the company simply couldn't guarantee without building its own.

Not that there is that much risk in pissing off their erstwhile allies. When it comes to tablets, Microsoft has seen that it's "own the OS or bust", so aren't particularly concerned about the prospect of competition from OEMs running generic OSes; and when it comes to PCs, there remains no alternative.

But there remains a sense that Microsoft has finally accepted what a "post-PC" era means, and – although three years late – are preparing to retool their business towards that. Frankly, it's just a case of following the money. Horace Deidu does the maths:

If we simply divide revenues by PCs sold we get about $55 Windows revenues per PC and $68 of Office revenues per PC sold. The total income for Microsoft per PC sold is therefore about $123. If we divide operating income by PCs as well we get $35 per Windows license and $43 per Office license. That’s a total of $78 of operating profit per PC.

Now let’s think about a post-PC future exemplified by the iPad. Apple sells the iPad with a nearly 33% margin but at a higher average price than Microsoft’s software bundle. Apple gives away the software (and apps are very cheap) but it still gains $195 in operating profit per iPad sold.

Microsoft has shown that it knows where to head. But, as the video starting this post demonstrates, it's not yet clear that they have the competency to get there. Beyond hedging their bets on things like launch dates, pricing, and specs, they didn't allow journalists much hands on time (only a couple of minutes), and none at all with the keyboard cover which appears to be one of their largest selling points. They now need to spend the time until launch ensuring that they can live up to the promises made there.

The Microsoft Surface from behind

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR