Will Apple Outlast Microsoft?

“Oh wow! Mom. Dad. You got us an iMac. Coooool! And we’ve been asking for one for soooo long.” (sub-text: … even though we’ve had a PC for years now.)

“I’ve been thinking of getting a Mac, but we’ve got Windows at work so I don’t really think I have much of a choice. I’ll have to get a PC.” (sub-text: … even though I really, really want a Mac!)

These two imaginary quotes encapsulate the differences between Apple and Microsoft. Let’s face it. The Apple commercials showed us that PC guy is a nerd, but that Apple guy is just too cool to be walking on earth. The Apple commercials showed us jiggling dancing girls and boys in silhouette living the high-life with their way cool iPods. Microsoft gets four-color full-page spreads in Fortune and Business Week to tell us that they have “solutions”, whatever those nerdy things are.

Let’s face it. Apple is cooler than Microsoft. That, I believe, explains the successful yet highly divergent paths both companies have taken, basically since their inception back in the smoke-filled days of the late seventies. But now that both have achieved dominance in their respective niches, it may be time to examine both business models a little more closely.

In the Long Run

It is my contention that Apple is setting itself up for long-term success and even that rarest of things, corporate longevity. In short, I believe that Apple—with due regard to the authors of Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras—just may be “built to last.” Microsoft, on the other hand, has many characteristics which leave it vulnerable to attacks and threats from all sides. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Microsoft and I just can’t get all the fuss about the Mac, but a dispassionate look at the business models and strategies has much to reveal about their differing potentials for success over the long term.

What really sets Apple and Microsoft apart? Is it the quality or type of technology? Is it the marketing and hype? Is it business strategy? The answer is none of the above. What sets these two giants apart is nothing other than customer experience.

Apple is the ultimate brand machine. Not just in computers, but also in iPods, which are just cute looking MP3 players, and now mobile phones/PDAs. Because that’s what an iPhone is after all. It’s a phone. Remember? It’s not a phaser that you can set to stun and you can’t call Scotty to beam you up.

What are people buying when they buy an Apple device? Is it quality? Is it technology? Is it ease of use? Most people would say all of these. However, I believe the real thing they are buying is fun and coolness. They are indulging their true nature, which is to be creative; wildly and unboundedly creative, creativity untempered by the boring exigencies of work and daily drudgery.

Even the corporate logo instantiates this idea of indulging one’s passions. What is the Apple other than the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? When you take a bite out of the Apple, you enter the Garden of Eden, where work is play and pain is pleasure. The bitten apple is what the French call un péché mignon, a little sinful treat.

Apple vs. Microsoft

So. You’re Apple’s competition. How do you compete against that? Do you tell customers your computer is more stable (which it probably isn’t)? Do you tell them your device is sleeker and more modern looking (hey, Apple’s is made in a hollowed aluminum casing lovingly carved by a laser beam)?

The truth is that Apple has a strong brand, probably the strongest one in the entire technology field. Moreover, because Apple doesn’t strive to be everything to everyone, it can afford to position itself in such a way as to make its market dominance essentially unassailable. Whenever a company achieves such brand recognition, it has to work extremely hard to screw itself up. Even then, die-hard fans will fight for the brand more than the company.

Does anyone remember the New Coke? Who got Coca Cola to reintroduce the good old Classic Coke? Answer: All of the millions of die hard Coke drinkers. Thus, Coca Cola’s brand is so strong, and its following so loyal—dare I say fanatical?—that it continues to be successful despite itself. It’s the customers that have saved, and continue to save, Coca Cola as a business entity.

I believe Apple is on the cusp of that same level of branding, if it hasn’t already achieved it. Simply put, Apple could probably make a lot of marketing mistakes and screw itself up silly, and it will still be around in a hundred years.