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Mac Planet: Execution

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Apple is massive enough, with large resources, staff levels, physical sites and all the rest, but it's still smaller than Microsoft. Photo / AP
Apple is massive enough, with large resources, staff levels, physical sites and all the rest, but it's still smaller than Microsoft. Photo / AP

"The frontier of high-value scenarios" is what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told staff would enable the company to "march outward" thanks to proven strengths and capabilities.

But for all the stirring battle talk, what he was leading up to was big changes for the IT behemoth, and possibly more staff losses.

This was all in a massive, 2720 word 'memo' that Microsoft posted.

According to AllThingsD, Ballmer's reorganisation would add "functional coherence" to Microsoft's businesses. It is definitely facing significant challenges. And its rivals are highly motivated, to say the least. Microsoft and its 'Windows' once had a premiere position in the computing world and indeed, still does, but achieved Windows catchword status thanks to about 90 per cent of the market.

Apple somehow achieved popular catchword status with 12-45 per cent (Macs and iDevices respectively).

Perhaps Microsoft's sheer corporate size has been slowing its reaction time (big liners turn more slowly than little boats), and each massive division has essentially been operating as a large standalone company. As Slashdot writes, "Microsoft has failed to capitalise early on major technological shifts, such as the rise of mobile devices."

The Windows phone might well be good, but that it was late to the game is not disputed. Perhaps it's missed the game altogether. One of Apple's big strengths, at least under Steve Jobs, was the singular direction that sprang from his mind percolating all the way down throughout the structure and touching pretty much every Apple endeavour.

Apple is massive enough, with large resources, staff levels, physical sites and all the rest, but it's still smaller than Microsoft. This makes it, by comparison at least, a lean and mean machine. Ballmer's latest efforts seek to impose a more direct and simplified structure, but this also quite a late reaction, don't you think? He's been in the job long enough.

The point is, saying Microsoft has been late to market in some sectors kind of ignores the fact we're talking about sectors Apple pretty much invented: smart devices being the latest, but through a long timeline that started with usable personal computers, which Windows then scrambled to replicate. Even starting up actual Microsoft stores in the US as a response to Apple Stores seems incredibly tortoise-like, if not to say half-hearted.

From my (admittedly utterly partisan) perspective, Microsoft's actual innovations - many of which Apple uses one way or another, by the way - have been in the background of devices, like in networking protocols, but I'm sure there's plenty I don't know. And MS-DOS then Windows were designed to run machines that Microsoft did not invent.

The Windows and Windows Phone platforms will now become part of the same operating systems engineering group. This group will cover mobile devices, personal computers and even consoles such as the upcoming Xbox One, which makes sense as interoperability between devices just keeps increasing. Encouraging closer cooperation between Microsoft departments (or former departments) can only be a good thing for consumers.

There's a turism in warfare that the innovations always come from the loser of the last campaign, not the winner. However, if Apple emerges as the clear winner from this latest 'campaign', it better watch out.

But with all the concern about privacy, Prism, communications etc, there are also concerns being raised by pundits as far as Windows goes. Changes in Microsoft's forthcoming upgrade to Windows 8 finds pieces of Windows 8 disappearing and a new feature that allows Microsoft to track your local searches, according to InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard. This represents the kind of data gathering that makes Facebook and Google so irksome to some.

So changes are afoot at Microsoft, but change is everywhere. No sooner had it been announced that New Zealand's PCWorld (and two other computer magazines) were closing when it was announced its US parent was going, too.

After slightly more than thirty years in print, PCWorld magazine is ceasing publication, effective from the current issue, to focus on its website and digital editions. It's almost surprising PCWorld lasted in print so long, actually - the magazine catered to a market that embraced online information gathering first, and that was years ago already.

I once edited a New Zealand Mac magazine. The advertisers constantly asked for an online presence to go with their print ads. Management refused to consider it. The only reason Macguide had a site in the first place was because I had built in in my own time. Gradually, advertising dried up, even while readership kept its audited level of 26,000 readers. Not bad considering Macs only formed, at most, about 3 per cent of the NZ market at that time.

Finally, after a year of warnings and pleading for the advertising guys to sell online slots as well, the CEO actually asked me to close the site 'to save money' (even though the company didn't pay a cent for it) and docked my wages 20 per cent to cover the drop in working hours ... for which I'd never been paid any extra anyway.

As you can imagine, tempers flared. The next arbitrary and stupid move was to shut the magazine entirely. Now the New Zealand market is at around 12 per cent of the PC market. When you imagine the numbers who would nowadays be reading about iDevices too, there are tens of thousands of potential readers in New Zealand alone. A great lesson in failing to grasp opportunities - and this was clear enough, to me anyway, back in 2007 when it all happened.

IDG says it won't lay off any employees as a result of the print exit; the PCW staff will now get to make PCWorld.com as useful as it can be, without being forced to tend to a publication which could never be what it once was.

The real challenge is making enough money to do a good job, which includes paying good staff.

Strangely, perhaps, PCWorld's sibling Macworld survives in print form, where it continues to compete with MacLife magazine. Macworld does have a very successful site, of course, and issues podcasts and even PDF 'Superguides' on Apple topics. Of course it's really quite likely Macworld's print life is also in sight of termination. But I'm not convinced of the form successful digital publishing will take - issuing PDFs? Or dedicated apps? Or specialist sites? What do you think?

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