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Should Apple Remove the Gloves?

The best way to observe the state of the so-called computer platform wars today is to look at the ever-popular Mac and PC spots, where two friendly dudes banter about the advantages or otherwise of their chosen operating system.

At the end, you come away with the impression that the personifications of the Mac and PC are nice people that actually like each other and are just trying to find ways to work together. Imagine two brothers with widely different world views trying to come together and act like family.

Indeed, one of the big selling points of the Mac is that it plays nicely with Windows. Microsoft’s Office suites on both platforms can share files, and your Mac can easily network with a PC. After a fashion, there’s even support with Microsoft Exchange servers for corporate email and other group-related functions.

I suppose it all dates back to the 1997 Macworld, where the ghost-like figure of Bill Gates appeared on screen via a satellite feed. There and then, Steve Jobs and Gates declared the platform wars over. Microsoft won, and it’s time to get over it and get on with our lives.

This is not to say that Apple is above ribbing Microsoft from time to time, witness those ads to those ubiquitous signs during WWDC events about copying stuff from Mac OS X.

But you sometimes feel Apple doesn’t really have its heart in it anymore. They have already invaded Microsoft’s turf with QuickTime, the iPod, iTunes and even Safari. Besides, Apple’s sales appear to be climbing steadily, so is there any real incentive to wage out and out warfare with Microsoft when stealth marketing seems to be accomplishing its goals?

Stealth marketing?

Well, consider all the online pundits who claim they used to be Windows users, but extended exposure to the Mac convinced them to change their ways. One by one, they have become Mac users, loyal Mac users, but they always leave a caveat in their articles that there still may be reasons that force you to stick with Windows. But they’re just hedging their bets with no real enthusiasm.

These days, even Microsoft’s best efforts play second fiddle to Apple’s marketing machine. From the introduction to the second-generation Zune music players to last winter’s release of Windows Vista, you get the impression that Microsoft wasn’t even trying anymore. Maybe they are so confident that their dominance of the PC industry will persist until the last personal computer rolls off the assembly lines that they no longer feel it necessary to pull out all the stops.

Certainly you get the impression that Apple continues to believe what Jobs said ten years ago. While the Mac continues to make inroads against Windows, the overall Mac user base is still dwarfed by Windows. Growing sales may help Apple’s bottom line and delight their stockholders, but it won’t change the world.

Then again, maybe Apple doesn’t have to remove its gloves after all.

Watching Microsoft in action, it’s easy to compare the company to an aging boxer, whose best days in the ring are long gone. His legs move slowly, fists don’t have the speed and power they once possessed, and perhaps too many glancing blows have dimmed mental alertness.

This is not to say Microsoft is necessarily punch drunk. But years at the top can certainly make any individual or company overconfident. You think you’ve already conquered the world, and that nobody will ever take your crown away. This may explain why Microsoft is happy to play the waiting game with the xBox and Zune, confident that huge investments in both products will eventually pay off with huge profits.

After all, doesn’t Microsoft own the PC universe?

Besides, although they’ve faced apparent defeats in antitrust actions, they have plenty of money to go around, and they probably chalk up those hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and other expenses simply to the cost of doing business.

At the same time, you wonder what might happen if Apple decided to go for the brass ring. How would Microsoft react then? It’s not as if Apple isn’t there already with the iPod, and some suggest the iPhone is poised to attain total dominance of the feature and smartphone markets.

But the Mac? Just because one in six laptops expected to be sold at the retail level in the U.S. are Macs doesn’t mean Apple has suddenly caught a wave. They still sell but a fraction of the units that are moved by either Dell or HP.

There are also the alleged consequences of lashing out against Microsoft in full force, such as the probable loss of Office for the Mac. Would Redmond really pull the plug on the Mac Business Unit? Some think, by shedding Visual Basic for Applications, Microsoft is already moving in that direction.

It may also be that the steady improvements in iWork are designed to set the stage where Microsoft’s Mac software will no longer be available. True, iWork has a lot of room to grow, but perhaps there are already test versions in the labs that match Office feature-for-feature and then some.

Don’t say it can’t happen, but maybe Apple doesn’t care anymore. Maybe they are happy enough to see Macs make steady inroads against the Microsoft machine. Maybe they just want Microsoft to fade on its own accord, with only a little guidance on their part.