I’m going to make the bold prediction that this new tablet will succeed and give Apple a race, possibly even crush them. However, based on Microsoft’s history it probably won’t be until version 3 that Surface is any good and during the first one or two bad versions they might shoot themselves in the foot. Being one or two steps behind Apple didn’t hurt them much in PC vs Mac challenge as Microsoft fights best from behind, being more comfortable as imitator than innovator. And like the Mac vs PC race Apple has fallen back into all the same bad habits they had that caused them to lose that race. The potential flaw in my prediction, however, is that today’s Microsoft is not the Microsoft that beat Apple decades ago. So while I’ll go ahead with prediction it’s a risky bet and so I won’t put any money on it, which is the classic way of rating a prediction. And of course I lost this bet the last time since I bet on Apple.
This battle won’t really be about product, just as PC vs Mac wasn’t about product. Failing to recognize that is one reason Apple lost the Mac war. Gates understood the war would be won or lost in the business basics trenches: getting distributors, getting press to endorse you (often by threats of pulling ads), getting developers (lots of dirty trick Microsoft used Apple was clueless about), getting cheap production partly through cutting some corners (with Steve gone Apple might do this this time, less concerned about perfectionism than saving a few bucks with good enough), and finally deal making (aka alliances) – getting the other people who mattered on your side (sorta like the great coalition building Papa Bush did that Baby Bush didn’t bother with). Yes, the Mac was the superior product, but Microsoft had the superior business strategy and tactics, but also the ruthlessness and relentlessness to grab the win.
On this last point, ruthlessness, Apple seems to have a lot bigger stock of it this go-around. Frankly, in fact, I believe it’s the main reason they even came back from the dead; it’s the one lesson Steve learned from Bill and took to heart. So today’s Apple is the heavy, the break-your-kneecaps kind of company 1980s Microsoft was. And some of the bruises they’ve inflicted may come back to bite them; Apple has some pretty heavy-weight rivals who’d like to see them take a tumble. Like they say, friends disappear, but enemies accumulate. Since Bing hasn’t hurt them Google might just find deals with Microsoft pretty appealing after Apple’s latest kick-them-while-they’re-down to Google over mapping, where Google clearly has the better product.
But the single thing, IMHO, that defeated Apple before was its arrogance. Apple, everyone there not just Jobs, plus most of Silicon Valley unable to believe an upstart in Seattle (a tech wasteland compared to Santa Clara county or the 128 loop) had even a chance against the best and brightest (self-proclaimed). It’s kinda the same as the 1984 USA Olympic hockey team against the Russian, no chance. That attitude actually made it easier for Bill, anything Microsoft accomplished was exceeding expectations where even the smallest stumble by Apple, the almighty, was a huge failure. One of these days Apple is going to do a rev of one of its products and it’s going to botch it, a bit – probably nothing big, but just something (cracks in the cube) that will look really stupid compared to their recent record. Hey, everybody has bad day, every now and even Babe Ruth struck out. It happens. And when it happens there will be a huge piling on, all the people irritated by Apple’s arrogance (and now ruthlessness as well) will find every way possible to slam them. And then the Apple faithful (aka, groupies) will be aghast at the rough treatment and again, like Mac people did, whine about the injustice and how Apple is the shining beacon of hope for all of humanity (instead a supplier of gadgets) and how Microsoft is the Borg here to crush our individuality and creativity. Yep, it will play out the same, deja vu all over again.
So my advice to Apple, as if they’d ever listen to anyone, or certainly anyone less than some nearly immortal celebrity, is get off your high horse and go back to doing what you were doing when you were rising from the dead – try harder! Stop believing your own mythology and thinking you are invulnerable and now have an entitlement for eternity and actually earn your sales. As Andy Grove wisely said (at least for business), only the paranoid survive. Microsoft can beat you Apple, just like the USA in 1984, or, gosh, maybe like Microsoft did beat you in the 80s and 90s.
And Apple can start by changing its attitude about its customers. In Apple’s world customers are fans and disciples, expected to be groupies and always agree with the keen and flawless design decisions made by Apple. Users are children and so can not be presented with choices or options because they’ll both get confused and choose the wrong ones that offend Apple’s aesthetic judgment. Plus this time around, since Apple is the heavy, and really a seller of content, not players, Apple believes they own my devices and my paying for them merely entitles me to use them when and how Apple wants me to.
Take for instance Android devices, ugly and clunky (so awful in Steve’s mind). When I plug one in my USB port it happily tells my computer it’s a disk drive (and doesn’t even require the fascist iTunes to run it). It lets me explore its file system, changing what I want (which of course does mean I can badly break the device). So if I take a picture I get to do whatever I want with that picture (not just what Steve decided I should do with only one way to do it). But Apple wants to own my device, to “sync” it, not with the software I want to use, but only with their software. And since they worry about DRM and malware, they make that a relatively complex and definitely inflexible process and they think I’m stealing songs (their real bread and butter for the bottomline) and so they won’t let me move things around between my multiple computers and multiple Apple devices and even my Android devices (sorry, Apple, Kindle is way better than iBooks) and my choice of cloud (sorry I’ll stick with SkyDrive or Dropbox and not be forced onto iCloud). That’s the way my life works – sorry, ghost of Steve, that it doesn’t match your model for my life, and just not model, but your rigid edicts about how I manage my life.
That arrogance, that they and only they know, how I want to manage my technology, esp. MY content, is rapidly making a lot of people rather irritated at them. Assuming Microsoft isn’t braindead, again Microsoft will give me choices (of course last time they mostly did it because their software was half-baked and they hadn’t quite gotten the code done to have some user friendly tool so they figured I could just go mess with the registry with a simple editor) when Apple gives me a straightjacket. And I, and a lot of others, will feel liberated from the chains Apple has wrapped around our devices, because of course, like our parents, Apple knows what’s best for us (really what’s best for them to maximize bottomline on content business, so the devices are just the pawn).
I don’t know what Surface is but I’ll also predict it will be more like Zune than xBox, ugly and klunky, and its OS will still be way to big and complicated for the hardware, and hard to use and slow, and there will be a ton of rough edges – sorta like Win95. And this time it also appears they probably won’t underprice Apple (given Apple has mastered slave labor production and squeezing suppliers for every last penny on costs). And Microsoft will be its usually completely clumsy self while Apple, for as long as Tim doesn’t turn into another Sculley, will be relatively nimble, leftover from the one-man dictator days of Steve. But I watched (as a partner) Apple go from nimble to bureaucratic the last time and wouldn’t rule it this time. And despite Apple’s glow that they have more money than Eurozone, Microsoft has a bit of coin too and can easily harvest lots of cashflow from all those server farms where Apple doesn’t even exist. So Microsoft is not going to be crushed even with a mediocre, maybe even bad, first product. Like Arnold, they’ll be back. I think Microsoft believes they have to win this one (or at least bring it to stalemate) and so it will be a bloodbath.
So Apple you had your sparring matches with Google and Samsung and Amazon – are you ready now for the main event?