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.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.