Sunday, August 2, 2009

Apple v. Microsoft: A Clash of Cultures

During a recent conference with analysts, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer referred to Apple's recent gains in market share as a rounding error. In fact, he goes on to say Apple's worldwide Macintosh market share costs Microsoft nothing. This, while acknowledging the number of Macs in use by those in attendance. Mr. Ballmer moves on to tackle Linux and what he sees as a more formidable global threat to Microsoft's control of the OS market.

I'm not creating this blog post to lambast Mr. Ballmer. He's CEO of one of the most successful technology companies in the world and by some accounts that company's most vocal cheerleader and public booster. He went on to tell those in the audience it was OK to use Macs as long as they were using Office as their productivity suite.

It's a clash of cultures between Apple and Microsoft, not a battle for control of the OS market. Apple doesn't seek control of the OS market, Apple, to the point of obsession, seeks to control the quality of the company's products from development to design to the end user experience.

What Microsoft can't control is the quality of the hardware sold with its OS nor can the company control the consumer desire for ever-lower PC prices. To maintain control, the company must address all price points in the PC industry. In Mr. Ballmer's discussion with analysts, he suggests Linux, lacking a fixed design point, is chaotic and doesn't deliver a value proposition when desiring to build an eco-system to support it as a product.

Both Apple and Microsoft are fixated on control but come at those efforts from vastly different vantage points and practices. It's a clash of cultures.

In the Mac camp are many people with long memories. They remember Microsoft ripping off Apple's designs even the "look and feel" of the Mac for Windows. Microsoft proved in court the company did this legally, based on clauses in the contracts between the two companies. Microsoft has always been one of the largest Mac developers on the planet. It wasn't that Windows was as good as the Mac, but it was "good enough" to satisfy the taste of most consumers and Microsoft's zeal for control of the OS market.

In the Windows camp are people who have a vehement distaste for the Mac. It's seen as a disruptive force and one for which the Intel transition has taken away most of the arguments. Macs no longer run on some kind of obscure chip architecture, but share the same innards as many Windows PCs. The iPod and now the iPhone are products those in the Windows camp don't see as a threat to Windows OS hegemony and they have provided an opportunity for detente. Windows zealots now only had to hate half of Apple and could safely admit some of the products from the folks in Cupertino are pretty darned cool. The fact is, iTunes has made Apple one of the largest Windows developers on the planet based on installs even if the software is provided free.

Back in the Mac camp, enthusiasts determined it's OK for Apple to play nice with Microsoft because to make Apple products available in the enterprise market the company has to deal with Exchange and other dreaded elements of the Microsoft OS command and control structure. Besides, Apple won the digital music player market by such a margin the resentment over Microsoft's success in the past could at least be partially put to rest. Similar to the way Red Sox fans responded after an 86-year drought as World Series Champions.

Where does it all go from here?

I remember the release of Windows 95. From an end-user standpoint it didn't go nearly as well as history might remember. It created a boon for the Microsoft eco-system: OEMs, peripheral makers, upgrade component makers and developers. I suspect Windows 7 will create its own set of issues but nothing that will threaten Microsoft's control of the OS market in the maturing and declining PC market. It may, however, create more of a blip on the sales radar screen for Macs that might just be more than a "rounding error" for the folks in Redmond. By comparison Snow Leopard will be received without nearly the same issues and will be a competitive contrast for the Mac in the inevitable comparisons between the two products.

For Apple, the company chose to finally build out an eco-system first with accessory makers for the iPod and now with developers for the iPhone and iPod touch. It's a page from Microsoft's path to success.

Microsoft will keep its monopoly standing in the OS market to satisfy the needs of the company's eco-system. Apple will continue to gain high-end market share to satisfy the needs of it shareholders. The iPhone will continue its global assault and roll-over what remains of the Windows Mobile market.

The clash of cultures will reignite when Microsoft makes a run at the iPhone with a revamped Windows Mobile solution and the coming Mac tablet hits at the PC laptop market with a resounding blast, threatening the volume numbers Microsoft needs to support its OEMs and developers.

Add the Google folks to the fun with a Chrome OS for netbooks, an OS for smartphones and we can all take sides in the coming clash of cultures played out on new battlefields with strange alliances the likes of which we have never seen before.

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