First, let me begin with a disclaimer: I have never found Microsoft anything but professional, friendly and forthcoming to deal with - and on that last one especially so, compared to Apple.

However, for decades, Apple and Microsoft appeared to be at loggerheads. They actually weren't, all that much, but maybe it served their purposes to appear so. I don't know - certainly, behind the scenes, engineers from both firms cooperated a lot more than you'd think, and of course Microsoft Office is a big seller on Macs and remains the de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Not only that, Apple caved years ago and dropped its own AppleTalk networking standards in favour of Microsoft's.

So really, I expected Microsoft and Apple to soldier on in a friendly enough, businesslike way, but unfortunately Steve Ballmer became CEO. This is a man who has never learnt to keep his thoughts to himself, and even more unfortunately, he chooses the most well publicised stages to give voice to those thoughts. Bill Gates was altogether more gentlemanly. Or perhaps just a wiser man.

Lately, however, after years of Microsoft being a huge virtual monopoly with amazing power, resources and revenues while Apple looked the puniest of competitors, things have shifted to the point that Apple now clearly sets the tech agenda and Microsoft, belatedly, follows suit.


Recently, though, even Bill Gates may have miss-stepped. In an interview with Charlie Rose in early July, Gates said it is "a strong possibility" that Apple may have to create a Surface-like device. Gates also said the introduction of Microsoft's Surface tablet "is a seminal event."

Right. And no: I agree with Jim Dalrymple in that I don't agree with Gates at all.

Microsoft, after publicly panning the iPhone five years ago and then looking silly after it exceeded all expectations, then put money and resources into the Windows Phone. This was a replay of the Zune debacle - Microsoft's late-to-market iPod wannabe. I'm not saying either of these were bad devices - they weren't, at all. But they were very late to the stage and looked like what they were - catch ups. And they wouldn't have looked quite so dorky if Microsoft hadn't made such silly announcements about Apple's products beforehand.

Microsoft started out as a software company - its acolytes used to lambast Apple fans with the statement 'Apple doesn't know if it's a software or a hardware company', as if it had to be one or the other. To me it was like saying 'Toyota has to decide whether it's an engine or a car body company.' So I always replied with the glaringly obvious answer: 'Apple is both. Get over it.'

But since being almost wholly a software company, Microsoft has built more and more hardware, starting with its own keyboards and mice (good stuff, too), then the Zune, then that phone thing ... but compared to Apple, you could say it has suffered from a policy of trying to satisfy every user request. This is certainly true of Windows, don't you think? But it's never been quite so evident as with this new tablet thing. It really makes you think of Tim Cook's jibe about the Samsung fridge.

Microsoft, thanks to its success and the fact Windows was installed onto a huge grab bag of devices all over the world, had a huge legacy audience to satisfy, sure. Apple didn't (notice the passed tense). Apple, with its much smaller user base, never had to worry too much about this, although that looks very different now to how it looked ten years ago.

Microsoft's OS market advantage actually peaked back in 2004. Apple has steadily been heading towards parity with Microsoft as an operating system - especially if you factor in iDevices (so do feel free to add Windows Phone into the Microsoft figures).

Apple has always just deleted features it decides are inconsequential, and lets other hardware and app developers cater to those needs if they want to. This can make Apple look arrogant, but is also a simple and effective policy that leads to very clear product lines.

What I find shocking, almost, though is the fact that Microsoft is increasingly following Apple's lead in the desktop OS. Apple has been cheerfully leading the iOS system closer to the Mac OS system (and vice versa) since iOS was first developed as a subset of OS X. Microsoft developed, you might remember, the beautiful Surface touch screen a few years ago. Except if was as big as a coffee table and cost over $20,000. Handy. But still, it was impressive tech and no mistake.

But with Operating Systems, Microsoft again appears to be following Apple's suit, with Gates (I thought he had retired?) explaining in an interview that the world is moving into tablets, and a new PC needs to have both experiences integrated together. You're late, Bill, but welcome to the party. Although I still remember the howls of derision from these quarters when Apple's iPad first came out.

In the interview, Gates defended the move to build the Surface while charging his competitors for Windows 8 (about 28 minutes in).

Windows 8 is expensive compared to Apple's next OS, Mountain Lion - both new systems are imminent.

Gates said users would have access to both experiences, whether it is a signature Microsoft one, or from an OEM. So Microsoft now thinks the desktop is dying? If so, Steve Jobs already said that a year ago.

All round, Microsoft appears to be flailing. It's just written US$6.2 billion off from another disastrous move in another field that's been defined and redefined by much more visionary competitors: Google. Microsoft paid US$6.3 billion to acquire the combo online marketing services vendor/advertising agency aQuantive in 2007, evidently as a response to Google's acquisition of DoubleClick. CEO Steve Ballmer declared "Microsoft is intensely committed to creating a thriving advertising business and to partnering closely with all key constituencies in this industry to help maximise the digital advertising opportunity for all." [For all? Right.]

But its online division has struggled. Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley has pointed out this is just one in a list of bad purchases from Microsoft.

Meanwhile, Apple just keeps on becoming more monstrous - check out this chart on Cult of Mac.

I kinda like Bill Gates. He actually puts millions into good causes, in stark contrast to Steve Jobs. But Microsoft needs to define itself for what's going to happen this century.

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