Microsoft is just a couple of short weeks away from unleashing Windows 8 to the world, and analysts are speculating on whether or not the company is actually starting to look a lot more like Apple than it used to. As a whole, Microsoft has its hands on a number of projects that Apple really hasn’t delved into, yet. Still, the upcoming Surface tablet and possible Microsoft-branded phone certainly appear to be very Apple-like approaches to combining software and hardware.
Microsoft and Apple have been locked in competition for decades. In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to a very broken and presumed dead Apple. With the help of Microsoft, Apple was able to get back on its feet and the rest is history. It could be argued that Microsoft needed Apple as much as Apple needed Microsoft. It isn’t unusual for pundits to compare the two companies and make note of their rivalry. Still, there have been parallels between the two corporations since the beginning.
Microsoft and Apple are behind two of the most popular consumer operating systems in the world. Microsoft went down the road of licensing its products while Apple decided instead to retain control of both the hardware and software side of its products. This worked out well for Microsoft because hardware companies were able to take its operating systems (DOS, Windows, etc.) and put them on a variety of systems to meet the financial and technical requirements of customers ranging from students to multinational corporations. Apple’s control had its advantages early on, as well. Educational institutions flocked to the Apple II as it became the first computer many users in a generation had ever used.
Over the years, Microsoft innovated and Apple fell short. Windows 95 introduced an operating environment that featured an incredibly advanced user interface for its time. It was then that Microsoft really gained significant ground. Apple, on the other hand, didn’t have any significant UI updates until it introduced OS X after buying the platform from Steve Jobs’ second computer company, Next.
Each company introduced music players, with Apple leading the charge with the iPod. The Zune player by Microsoft was the first to add a big screen for video and what would later be called the Metro design style (now used in Windows 8 and on the Xbox). The iPod continued to dominate, and the Zune line eventually died. The Zune store, however, was quite different from iTunes. Unlike a purchasing outlet, Zune ran on a subscription model so you could pay one price to have access to the entire catalog of music. That business model is still quite popular today with Spotify, Rhapsody, and other music services.
Apple then went into phones. Microsoft had already been producing a mobile version of Windows for years, with limited success. Apple’s iPhone not only brought forth a new style of mobile operating system (iOS) but it also introduced hardware that would later become the benchmark on which all smartphones are measured. Microsoft’s rebuttal, Windows Phone 7, was too little; too late.
Microsoft’s original tablet push combined a desktop version of Windows with what was essentially a laptop with a touch screen. It did well in the medical industry, but not so much anywhere else. It was an expensive laptop at best, and Windows was poorly adapted to touch screens. Even Windows 7 has issues on touch screens. It just didn’t fit well. Apple’s iPad took a mobile OS built for touch screens and put it to work on a tablet. It became the most successful single hardware tablet on the market.
Today, Microsoft is on the verge of releasing its latest desktop, tablet, and phone platforms. Windows Phone 8 is elegant and easy to navigate. Windows 8 is designed to work as well on a desktop as it does on a tablet. This makes it very different from either OS X or iOS. Still, it’ll be a second chance for Microsoft to take a stab at the tablet market it so heavily invested in a decade ago.
In what is a very Apple-like move, Microsoft opted to create its own tablet hardware to pair with Windows 8. The Surface (still without a definite price) is the first example of a Microsoft-branded computer outside of the Xbox. A possible Microsoft phone could be coming in 2013, depending on how Windows Phone 8 plays out on OEM devices.
Is Microsoft becoming more like Apple? I think Microsoft is certainly evolving as it goes along. It jumped into the console market with both hardware and software because there are limited OEMs in the market willing to work with a licensed OS. It built its own music player for the same reasons. The tablet market was almost certainly in love with Android, and it could be argued that Microsoft had to build the Surface if only to drive home the point that Windows 8 is built with tablets in mind.
I believe that Microsoft is being Microsoft. This latest move certainly looks like something out of Apple’s playbook, but is it really? It looks to me like a smart business move, and any software company not at least considering Apple’s example has an uphill battle ahead of it.