Give Microsoft points for accretive messaging: When they decide to tell you what their company is about, they back it up, repeatedly, through an entire cycle of software and hardware releases. For 18 months, there's been a steady drumbeat from Redmond sending a message that Microsoft wants to empower "people and organizations all over the world" to be as productive as possible. Today's presentation added another note to the message: Microsoft wants to help you reach your creative potential too, because creativity and productivity go hand-in-hand.
Hence naming the next iteration of Windows 10 "Creators Update," using creative professionals to demo new hardware and new 3D capabilities in MS Paint, and the 3D Creator package, which promises to add another dimension to everything from photos to PowerPoint presentations.
The specific positioning of these products is meant to make everyone feel as if they've got the potential to be the Picasso of PowerPoint, and it helps that there's a line of affordable VR headsets coming out to help extend the experience to everyday people. It's a very good read on the ethos of the times: Younger tech users take it for granted that they'll be able to remix the things they love in new and surprising contexts, and giving them the tools to extend their creative engagement in everything from digital media to games is a great way to build a strong customer base.
(Make no mistake: The segment of the presentation emphasizing how Windows 10 enhances and extends the social experience of gaming on the XBox is also another way to gain mindshare among younger technology users. It's stealth evangelism for an operating system.)
But today's announcement of the Surface Studio -- which basically looks like a drawing table designed in the year 2525 -- also signals that Microsoft is coming for an audience that's traditionally been big into Apple. The Cupertino company's benign neglect of its desktop line (it only comprised 12% of last quarter's revenue) has created a market opportunity for people who want a lot of computing power on their work machine and do a lot of visual work.
Microsoft is pouncing on that opportunity with a $3000 machine that lets people move seamlessly between CAD, hand-lettering and illustration, 3D rendering and printing, and digital photography and illustration. The Surface Studio's got a keyboard, a touch-sensitive screen, the Surface Dial (which combines touch technology with a lot of canned actions, like replaying edits and revisions in real time) and a pen. That covers a lot of different ways to create and manipulate digital assets.
Today's keynote was a very canny piece of messaging. Productivity, which is interesting and engaging for some, is also ... well, let's call it boring. Or stressful. The implication behind "productivity" is that you'll be expected to do more work in less time.
On the other hand, creativity is fun. It implies the kind of joyful accomplishment of bringing something new, beautiful and/or necessary into the world. It implies the kind of purpose that feeds a user's sense of personal satisfaction, not the kind of purpose where a user thinks, "If I don't send enough email, my Outlook metrics are going to look like that social media episode of Black Mirror."
Microsoft's still a company focused on productivity -- it's not like today's announcements included, "And we're retiring MyAnalytics because we know taking time management suggestions from an artificial intelligence was stressing you out." But now, the company's also remembering that a compelling reason to do stuff is because we want to have fun.
Will anyone buy Microsoft as a fun, cool tech company? It almost doesn't matter whether people think Microsoft is "fun" so long as they think Microsoft works best for them. Microsoft's advantages here are fairly formidable: a Surface family of products aimed at different users from recreational to creative professional; an augmented-reality strategy that's already being tested in diverse retail, corporate and research fields; and an operating system that helps a user move fluidly between gaming console, mobile device and desktop.
Now all we have to do is see whether users actually are all the augmented-reality-loving creativity machines Microsoft thinks we can be.