Key Points:

With the exiting of the Old Guard - in the form of Bill Gates - from Microsoft and the coming in of the new Old Guard in the form of Steve Ballmer, what's going on at Microsoft?

In a statement to staff last week, Ballmer announced plans to take on Apple. Again. This turning back of the clock highlights once again the love-hate relationship between the two rivals.

Microsoft has one of the biggest Apple developer departments in the world. The Mac Business Unit in Seattle has recently been expanding. At the same time Microsoft is said to be gearing up a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to refute Apple's successful Get A Mac ads that skewer frustrated PC users.

In the statement to staff, Ballmer said "In the competition between PCs and Macs, we outsell Apple 30-to-1. But there is no doubt that Apple is thriving. Why? Because they are good at providing an experience that is narrow but complete, while our commitment to choice often comes with some compromises to the end-to-end experience."

That's true-ish - the figures '30-1' are open to interpretation, and Microsoft doesn't actually make PCs to outsell anyone. Microsoft makes operating systems. This has been both an advantage and a disadvantage - Microsoft has a huge installed base but has to try and make systems that run on a vastly bigger range of computers than Apple has ever had to.

Since Microsoft doesn't make computers, it has a much larger raft of compatibility issues to satisfy. Ballmer's plan appears to be, in a phrase that sounds a bit like Apple marketing, for Microsoft to change the way it works with hardware vendors to provide "complete experiences."

Ballmer also plans to take on the iPhone, presumably with Windows Mobile, working with device manufacturers to get better synergies operating.

Before making real progress against Apple, Microsoft has to resolve two outstanding issues - the failure of the new Vista operating system - whatever the numbers sold - and search engine issues where it's unhappily butting up against Google's dominance.

And before you denounce me as "just an Apple fanboy" (I am an Apple fanboy, get over it) Forrester Research has announced that less than one in eleven of the PCs being used in large or very large enterprises actually run Windows Vista.

The Forrester comments undercut the momentum for Vista claimed by Microsoft, which says it has sold 180 million license for its 18-month-old operating system.

In this speech to staff, Ballmer claimed "We are the best in the world at doing software and nobody should be confused about this. It doesn't mean that we can't improve, but nobody is better than we are" Right.

Anyway, this all begs the question: what has Microsoft ever done right?

Word: Bill Gates was impressed by the Apple operating system's "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG, pronounced "wizzywig") aspect and had his engineers create Word three years before a version for PC was made.

This established Word's dominance way back in the Mac-driven desktop publishing boom of the late '80s and helped it get established in the Windows environment once launched there. Nowadays Office:Mac 2008 continues to offer Mac-only features created by the Mac BU's dedicated Apple engineering team, like recording audio directly into Word documents in Notebook View, a boon to Mac-using students, minute-takers and journalists.

Excel: the default standard for accounting the world over, Excel was likewise in a Mac version a couple of years before it was made for Windows. It's powerful, sophisticated and classy - on the downside, it's huge and has way more features than most people use. Like Word.

Keyboards and mice: Microsoft established a hardware department, methinks largely to create keyboards with direct access to Windows features. However, the Microsoft engineers take ergonomics much more seriously than Apple's engineers, who have to satisfy beauty and simplicity regimens. Microsoft has created a range of very useful mice, keyboards and other hardware that's often Mac compatible.

I swear by my little Microsoft wired mobile mouse - it's old, but it's much more comfortable than an Apple mouse, and light and small. The downside is, by comparison, the keyboards look pretty ugly next to Macs.

Windows Mobile: this device and smartphone OS is designed to be like Windows. As with the iPhone 2x OS, third-party software development is available for WM.

Microsoft has projected that shipments of devices with Windows Mobile will increase from 11 million to 20 million units this year, with the OS licensed to four out of the five world's largest mobile phone manufacturers. An advantage of WM is security features, seemingly more reassuring to enterprise users than those in Apple's iPhone 2x OS. You can read a contentious and critical review of smartphone OSs at Roughly Drafted.

Live Mesh: this technology is so important that Apple has been playing catch up, putting 'Exchange for the rest of us' on the iPhone communicating via MobileMe with Macs and PCs. MobileMe has had a painful roll-out, though.

Live Mesh aims to connect to people, devices, programs, and information seamlessly wherever you may be. Devices synchronise with each other without users having to manually make the sync happen.

The biggest future competition may be Adobe's offering, currently under development, Adobe Air.

Monopoly: I wouldn't like to take on any of the Microsoft managers in this board game ...

(This is not an exhaustive list - please feel free to add your own).

- Mark Webster