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How Microsoft Can Compete with Apple

The very idea of this article may seem improbably, and it’s fair to say that the 90s signaled the ascendancy of Microsoft as the dominant player in the operating system arena and nearly did Apple in. In those days, Microsoft, feared and admired with equal fervor, could do no wrong. Every product they announced — and certainly some were never released — was praised as the next great thing.

Apple, on the other hand, became beleaguered, and many wrote them off as just another computer company that had some great ideas that just never really caught on beyond a small number of avid fans.

But something happened along the way. In nearly every case where Microsoft strayed beyond its core operating system and application business, they didn’t set the world afire. Take the MSN online service, for example. Even the folks at AOL were fearful of being supplanted by the Redmond juggernaut, yet that didn’t happen. MSN remained a distant also-ran, and, during a brief spell when they attempted to expand to the Mac platform, few cared.

I suppose you could call the Xbox a success, though its sales are heavily subsidized, and it is meant as a loss leader for the games Microsoft hopes you’ll buy to justify its release.

The Zune actually rose to a distant second when pitted against the iPod during its first week on sale. But after a spate of tepid reviews, the Zune is reportedly rapidly sliding into insignificance.

Now you don’t have to remind me that Windows still overwhelms the operating system world, and Microsoft Office remains a business mainstay. Apple may have made a few gains in market share, but a few percentage points may not be so big a deal, as Microsoft’s balance sheet remains healthy and sales continue to increase. Stockholders are surely pleased, even if the price has been fairly stagnant in recent years.

At the same time, most people who use Microsoft’s products seem to do so grudgingly. It’s necessary to get work done, but do you feel warm and fuzzy inside, or do you just regard it as nothing more than a slightly sticky stapler, one where the staples occasionally don’t insert themselves cleanly and seamlessly through several sheets of paper?

As far Apple, should Microsoft feel jealous? People cheer Steve Jobs and many regard him as technology’s true rock star. He’s cool, whereas Bill Gates, despite his great philanthropic achievements, is the quintessential evil nerd.

Indeed, one of Microsoft’s missteps with the Zune is that they just don’t seem to get it. The user interface on the device or the Zune marketplace both strike one as garish rather than elegant. You almost feel it was all put together with a PowerPoint presentation that compared features but didn’t explain the best way for them to be implemented.

With Windows Vista, it seems Microsoft at least tried to add elements of Mac OS X, but assembled everything in its typicallyi hodge-podge fashion, as if they really didn’t care about usability, or whether people ended up being confused rather than empowered. In one telling case, the interface becomes the anti-Mac, where the traditional menu bar labels are confined to optional choices. Is that supposed to be a good thing, or just a lame attempt to be different?

More and more tech pundits talk of their Mac switches with surprise and reverence, as if they had awakened from a long, painful slumber and feel alive all over again.

No, Microsoft isn’t going to disappear tomorrow or even in the next decade. But an erosion has begun and they are no longer regarded as unstoppable.

As the baton passes from Bill Gates to a newer generation of leadership, however, perhaps Microsoft should be looking closer at what Apple does right. Being almost as good may no longer be enough. Surely there are visionaries within the company who, if their talents were truly harnessed, would provide insanely great products and ideas that would even make Apple jealous.

Indeed, the Zune, had it been designed to be better than the iPod, as opposed to merely decent, might really have taken the digital music player market by storm. It could have given Microsoft a new image as a company that truly reflects the tastes of the younger generation. It could, as someone once said, been a contender.