"You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user," Apple CEO Tim Cook said two years ago.
Cook did not know it at the time, but he was talking about Microsoft's hardware design strategy, specifically of its Surface line, when he took that swing after being asked his take in April 2012 on blending tablets with personal computer notebooks.
"Anything can be forced to converge. But the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone," Cook continued.
Yesterday, Microsoft's newly-minted CEO, who wasn't in charge when Cook let loose his toaster broadside, and so perhaps had to wait until now to respond, countered.
"The question that must be asked and answered is, 'Why hardware?' We clearly are not interested in building refrigerators or toasters," CEO Satya Nadella said at the front end of an hour-long event that unveiled the new Surface Pro 3, the company's latest revamp of the design mashup that Cook knocked.
Toasters and refrigerators. Meet tablets and notebooks.
Who is right, Cook or Nadella?
Nadella on Tuesday was certain Microsoft's vision was correct.
"Can we design and build a device that takes the best of the tablet and the laptop, and enables any individual to be able to read, and to be able to create and write, allows you to watch a movie and make a movie, enjoy art and create art? That's the device we want to create," said Nadella.
Strong stuff, lyrical even. But enough to change Cook's mind?
"When has Apple ever reacted?" asked Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, answering the question: "What's Apple's move?"
True enough. Punditry's battleground is littered with the bones of those who have said Apple had to do this, must do that to counter rivals' moves ... to thrive, even survive.
Still. What if Microsoft's right? What if Transformer-like tablets that pivot and fold, if not spindle and mutilate, are spot on, if not today, then a whirlwind of calendar pages later?
"This doesn't require any change by Apple. They're making the majority of profit in smartphones and tablets, so this won't force them to make a defensive move," asserted Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.
But he hedged. "There may be some rethinking at Apple if the Surface Pro 3 gets some traction, but I think it would be more about what does that mean to a MacBook Air than an iPad," Moorhead said.
Gold agreed. "The Surface [Pro 3] is not intended to compete with the iPad," he said. "It's trying to differentiate from the iPad."
Some saw a clash as inevitable, not because the two companies needed to duke it out -- Apple has much bigger threats to its bottom line than Microsoft and its Surface Pro 3, Microsoft arguably has more to worry about from Google than from Apple -- but because of a developing tablet trend.
"Apple's already on their own path," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, talking about a larger-screen iPad, one with, say, the 12-in. display size of the Surface Pro 3.
With that much glass, an iPad would cry out for a keyboard, she's convinced, if only to make use of the real estate for the kind of productivity tasks that benefit from multiple windows, or a split screen where two apps share the space, like Office.
Her logic? Apple's gone smaller than the original 9.7-in. display to make the iPad Mini. What's left is to go bigger, likely to put the iPad in a better light in business, where Cook has recently expressed a desire to push. "A keyboard would make all the difference, it would give an iPad the full productivity experience," said Milanesi. "I think they need to do something."
And if the iPad took on the space the Surface Pro 3 covets? Milanesi was confident that the former would give as good as it got, even though corporate is predominantly Windows. "Remember, it's the apps and the services that you can run that are also part of the debate. People are developing apps for the iPad in businesses. That's what makes it successful in the enterprise. It's the form factor and the apps. That's why its often easier to being an iPad into the enterprise than a MacBook Air."
With Windows still stuck in the low single digits of tablet shipment share, far fewer companies have bothered to build internal apps for the touch-first "Metro" mode of Windows 8.1. The enterprise mobile app action is in iOS, not Windows or Android.
But what about Cook's toasters-refrigerators slam? Or his likening a 2-in-1 to "a car that flies and floats" a little later?
Apple has eaten its words before. Think the iPad Mini or selling e-books. And more importantly, Cook hasn't mocked the form factor since 2012.
Or maybe everyone has it backwards. Maybe Nadella's talk of toasters and refrigerators wasn't a spur to make Apple compete, but a way for him to say that, in fact, the two companies are on the same hardware page.
Nadella certainly sounded like he could have come from Cupertino.
"We want to build experiences that bring together all the capabilities of our company, from our cloud infrastructure and application services to our hardware capabilities, to build these mobile-first productivity experiences. That's the mission," Nadella said. "Our goal is to create new categories and start new demand for our entire ecosystem. That's what motivates us."
If that's not a little Apple-esque, what is?
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].
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