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Apple Watch: Microsoft and the iPad

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The iPad, for me, underscores the changing fortunes of Microsoft, which has had a strangely symbiotic relationship with Apple. One minute flag waver, the next a monolithic antagonist, Bill Gates' vision of a PC on every desktop - running Windows - pretty much came true, sidelining Apple to the role of curiosity, although creative professionals kept using Macs.

I've often mentioned Jobs as a very effective visionary - but so was Gates. He first thought this PC notion up in 1977, when almost no one even really knew what a computer was. Soon pretty much everyone did, and they also knew very well (for better or worse) what Microsoft was.

At peak, the Windows' share of the computer market hit just over a pretty astonishing 95 per cent. Even now, the majority of desktop and notebook computers are still running a variant of Windows. But what has been happening is a shift to shiny, sleek devices that don't even always sit on desks, since many are pocketable, or at least can be flourished from a bag at a moment's notice. Steve Jobs' once ridiculous-seeming notion of computing tools as 'appliances' has swept computers aside in a tide of devices first from Apple and, increasingly, from its emulators I mean competitors.

If you count iOS devices as computers - and this notion used to be open to challenge, but now that the latest are 64-bit, that challenge is dissipating - then, as the Apple-watching site TUAW (among others) has noted, last quarter marked the first time Apple sold about as many computers as run a Microsoft OS.

Microsoft won the battle for the desktop. Steve Jobs conceded this in 1997 at Macworld (although he'd mentioned it the year before in a Wired interview). Luckily Apple did not give up producing the Mac.

Technology commentator John Gruber is cutting about this in Daring Fireball saying: "... once [Microsoft's] goal was achieved, I don't think they knew where to go. They were like the dog that caught the car. They spent a lot of time and energy on TV. Not just with Xbox, which is alive and well today (albeit not a significant source of income), but with other ideas that did not pan out, like 'media center PCs' and the joint ownership of 'MSNBC', which was originally imagined as a sort of cable news network, website, dessert topping, and floor wax rolled into one."

It wasn't clear that the battle front would shift to portable consumer technologies, at least not to most people. But it did, and Apple set the field-of-play for that scenario. Gruber makes the point that Google developed Android as the "successful fast follower" and this was the position Microsoft missed.

Which is not to say Apple will remain the dominant player, but it will always be hugely significant, because it was the first player of any real note.

Of course, Microsoft has a new CEO and perhaps Satya Nadella has the smarts to respond better to - or even to create - changing markets.

Nadella is right that Microsoft is still (hugely) significant enough to stay in the game. As he says: "We need to be able to pick the unique contribution that we want to make." This is something Ballmer failed to do. But a deal to acquire Nokia and possible efforts to merge Windows RTS and Windows Phone is still responding to a market Apple effectively set, while Google effectively responded, leading to their current respective positions in the mobile and tablet marketplace.

But here's the thing. iPad is easy to use, and it's popular in enterprise thanks to its security features. Many people have a Windows desktop still, or at least came from that background, but now either have an iPad as well as, or exclusively.

And they come from a world in which Microsoft Office is the go-to - if not default - software for spreadsheets, word processing and email. And with good reason. They're very solid products, if not overkill for many of the uses they are put to.

Whereas Google rapidly became - and has remained - a very big iOS developer, Microsoft has largely shunned the Apple mobile platform. Perhaps Microsoft finally conceded that Apple's position of creating both the hardware and the software to run it was the right approach (for which Apple was roundly criticised, for decades). Whatever the truth, there has been a very real desire for Office apps on iPad for almost as long as iPads have been available.

Microsoft could have gained a lot from doing so (rumours have been saying Office for iPad has been in development for ages). Microsoft would have gained a strong presence on a popular device. Perhaps this would have helped its popularity. It certainly would have gained Microsoft an insight into the last decade's most enduring technology wave. Before, Microsoft had a strong presence, with Office, on a not-particularly-popular device: Apple's Mac, and seemingly with little trouble doing so, while maintaining a strong and dedicated Mac development team in Seattle.

Gates appeared enthusiastically on the brochure for the first Macintosh back in 1984, and the 'what you see is what you get' (WYSIWYG, pronounced 'wizzywig') was a big factor in the rapid uptake of Microsoft Word and Excel on Mac, and then Windows as that, too, adopted WYSIWYG.

But what Microsoft probably has in mind is cementing users to its own platforms rather than offering its software on platforms controlled by others. Lately, Microsoft has been signalling change in position since Ballmer (outgoing Microsoft CEO) said the Office version for iPads and Android tablets would come after Microsoft delivered a touch-first version for Windows 8.

Microsoft is honing and perfecting the interface of Windows 8.1x, and its related Windows RT version for touch, and rumours say Windows RT and Windows Phone will merge.

Meanwhile, PC platforms for Windows are declining, both in sales and in manufacture, with Sony closing down the Vaio line and LG rumoured to soon also exit PC manufacture.

Of course, in the 'post-PC' era that Steve Jobs declared and which Tim Cook is embracing, Mac sales have dipped too, although profit margins are so good as to create a good buffer.

But falling sales are just that. Falling sales.

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