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Is Apple the Next Microsoft? May 4, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Strategy.
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I mean that in both the best and worst possible ways.  On the positive side, recent reports have noted that Apple’s market capitalization was approaching that of the much larger Microsoft, and was likely to surpass it in the near future (I think this has happened, at least temporarily).  On the negative side, the SEC is reported to be looking into changes in the Apple developer license agreement that some observers claim are antitrust issues.

I don’t want to get into that debate.  It’s been a long time (two decades) since I was a certified Apple developer, and these days I rarely launch Visual Studio with the intent of serious code development.  And Apple in particular seems to bring out the worst in people – mindless and obnoxious advocates, and equally mindless and obnoxious detractors.

(Aside: The mindless and obnoxious Apple advocates can’t hold a candle to the old Amiga puritans.)

It seems to me that the crux of the difference between Apple and Microsoft are what they have been since the 1980s – closed (Apple) versus open (Microsoft).  One might think that “closed” is a pejorative in this context, but by maintaining a high degree of control over hardware and software, Apple has consistently produced high quality and easy to configure and use products.

I recall doing a review of Windows and Mac video capture boards in 1990, a time when this technology was new and difficult to use.  There were far more hardware cards for Windows than the Mac, but the Mac products simply installed and worked, whereas the Windows alternatives required technical knowledge and a large helping of patience.

That and similar observations have made me wonder is Apple’s closed model is an essential ingredient in innovation.  Microsoft has many bright and creative people, probably more so than Apple, yet few would call the company innovative.  Or perhaps it is creativity applied in a different way – making technology more adaptable, rather than making it perfect.

It’s difficult to have this discussion without a comparison of the companies’ respective brainchildren, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  That discussion is rather beside the point today, with Gates years away from active involvement in Microsoft, but prior to that both companies were largely reflections of their founders’ respective characters.  Both were confident to the point of arrogance, yet Jobs is popularly described as aloof and a perfectionist, whereas Gates is acclaimed as a business genius.

I think their mode of travel is telling.  When Jobs returned as Apple CEO, part of his compensation was in the form of a private jet.  Gates famously flew coach.

(I pass no judgment here; I will never have a private jet, and were I Gates I would have managed to get myself approved for Business Class).

It would be instructive if we could have the innovation debate rationally.  But I don’t think such a debate can answer the question of the best ways to innovate.  Both Apple and Microsoft are the products of their creators, with many of the unique strengths and limitations of those individuals.

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