Will Apple Outlast Microsoft?

Now what about Microsoft? There are Anything But Windows (ABW) movements. There is plenty of state-sponsored litigation against it. There is plenty of private litigation against it. I’m sure someone will cite me an example of litigation somewhere against Apple or of a satanic cabal of Mac haters in Iowa, but the reality is that people love to hate Microsoft.

People also love to doubt Bill Gates’ sincerity in his transformation from IT robber-baron who eats baby computer manufacturers for breakfast to a modern-day reincarnation of Andrew Carnegie. As for Steve Jobs, people just view him as a brilliant, if quirky, CEO.

I know this is going to sound like heresy, but I will say it anyway. Microsoft has a weak brand image. In some quarters, it even has a negative brand image. There, I said it. Sure, there are niches where Microsoft does reign close to supreme. The Xbox is one product that comes to mind. But in most cases, the fact that people are working on systems that are running on Microsoft guts goes a thousand miles over their heads. And so it should.

Users don’t feel any particular attachment to the Microsoft software they use. Many of them feel it is forced on them and dream of a more convivial workstation. Personally, I don’t see that much of a difference between the two computing paradigms, at least in terms of ergonomics, but I’m a nerd after all.

Many of the Microsoft “solutions” corporate speak for database apps and other such industrial software are competing against IBM’s, SAP’s, Peoplesoft’s, etc. Microsoft may be a big player, perhaps even the biggest player in some niches, but there is competition. Moreover, that competition can convince corporate buyers that their own products are more cost-effective and consequently a better investment than Microsoft’s. That kind of calculus is rare if simply non-existent in Apple’s chosen niches. In fact, Apple studiously avoids rational sales pitches and focuses instead on the emotional attachment to its products.

We live in a long-tail world, to use Chris Anderson’s phrase. Apple certainly isn’t invulnerable to an upstart device maker from way down in the tail. However, it at least has some very strong defenses in the form of strong emotional attachment on the part of users and customers and a consumer-oriented business model that seeks to please people as people, and not as workers.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is extremely vulnerable to competitive pressures by any number of upstart device or software producers. When combined with the potential subversiveness of many movements out in the long tail, there is no telling where the attack could come from. It could be a full-scale onslaught by IBM or SAP (or how about GE?). But most likely it will be an unforeseen, and unforeseeable, technology or business model that will strike out of nowhere, stealthily and in the night, like a guerrilla warrior. Or it could be the Googles of the world morphing and adapting quicker, like the blob that ate the mid-Western town in the B movie.

Microsoft has attained its current dominance because it muscled itself into the marketplace and fought all comers. Simply put, Microsoft nuked itself into its current position. But no one wants the nukes anymore. It has to use stealth bombs and hearts and minds warfare. Can it change itself into a kinder gentler monolith?

My money is on Apple, because it acts like a long-tail company, despite its growing size and niche dominance. But who knows what lurks out there in the night, ready to pounce on Microsoft and to offer its customers superior value for less money, quicker, and with much less hassle?

Richard Martin is president of Alcera Consulting, a management consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations to thrive in the face of risks, threats and uncertainty.