Microsoft vs. Apple, Post Gates and Jobs: Which Survives Until 2020?

Wednesday Jun 25th 2008 by Rob Enderle
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Microsoft suffers from a tarnished brand while Apple relies far too heavily on the brilliance of one man, Steve Jobs. Can either firm overcome their inherent flaws?

If you look at the recent concerns surrounding Steve Jobs’ departure you’d probably conclude that Microsoft is the more likely to be around, given it’s still growing financially long after Bill Gates effectively stepped out of the leadership role.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, has tied himself so closely to the appearance of success that few can see the possibility of a succession plan that could save the company even though, currently, Apple is flying higher than Microsoft is. It seems almost surreal that it’s even valid to talk about Apple’s failure, given how well they are currently doing – yet a lot of us are.

With Bill Gates departing completely from Microsoft shortly and Steve Jobs likely to depart Apple by the end of the decade if not sooner, let’s look at the future of these two companies and what is likely coming.

What is Survival?

But survival to me means more than remaining in business. For instance I think the IBM of the 1970s died in the late 1980s and we now have a different and dramatically weaker company in its place with the same name. Part of what makes Microsoft Microsoft and Apple Apple is their unique approaches to business and the market – things that their customers and investors admire and get excited about.

If we look at the Microsoft that came to power and peaked in 2005 and the Apple that initially peaked around 1987 and now is reborn and reaching even higher peaks today, we see some clear strengths that define both firms.

Apple is defined by focus on the consumer experience, by providing a combination of strong end-to-end experience that starts when the product is first conceptualized and moves through retail until a planned end of life. Apple is unique in that it seems to work very hard to ensure satisfaction with their intentionally limited number of offerings, from the moment a customer buys them to the moment they buy the next version.

Social engineering as applied to products is their greatest strength.

Microsoft is a platform and tools company at its core and vastly more complex than Apple. Complexity is not strength for the firm, however, and it too is best when focused – often requiring a competitor to provide that focus.

Its strongest division is the server and tools division, which best showcases this strength. This division focuses not on end users but developers and enterprise customers, who generally are very pleased with the results and have demonstrated their satisfaction by rewarding that division with strong financial growth. When Microsoft is strongest is when it’s sharply focused on a problem, has a goal in mind (not a competitor), and the company moves as one. The .NET initiative was their latest example of this strength.

Seeds for the Future

For Microsoft there are indicators of success ahead. Thanks largely to Apple’s very hostile product assassination campaign on Vista, Microsoft is currently more focused on making Windows 7 a hit than I’ve ever seen them since Windows 95.

They have largely dismantled their foolish “get the facts” campaign and started to fully embrace the open source needs of their developer audience. And they have created four new products that could rise to greatness: Microsoft Live Mesh, Sync, .NET Micro Framework, and One Care, each of which is well positioned against emerging opportunities. But any of these products could fall to executive foolishness executive foolishness – as Chrome Effects did, allowing someone like Adobe (Flash) to fill the void.

Apple has a bigger problem because of the solid connection to Steve Jobs and the apparent inability now, or in the past, to find someone else who can keep a large number of very creative people focused and productive – let alone be the chief sales person and product advocate.

But Apple is at the top of their game and actually enters this cycle much stronger. And there are tools available like Virsona that may eventually makes someone like Steve Jobs effectively immortal with regard to leadership. We have seen that Pixar/Disney can make fictional characters incredibly real, why not do the same to Steve Jobs and turn his image into a perpetual spokesman for Apple? So here do the seeds exist to potentially address the most difficult parts of Apple’s long-term problem: the loss of Steve Jobs.

Who Survives?

Neither company survives, if we tie survival to the lack of significant change. The market is changing at an unprecedented rate and both companies will have to adjust to the realities of the future.

But in an absolute sense, much like Apple can benefit much more from one or two hit products than Microsoft, so too can they more likely be killed by one or two failures. Microsoft’s complexity makes it harder for them to broadly succeed and fail because the complexity is both an impediment to growth and a protection against absolute failure.

However, as far as being at a peak as opposed to a shadow of their former greatness, both firms are exposed. Apple is too tied to their CEO right now and Microsoft, like IBM who preceded them, seems unable to compete as a company (more often defined by infighting, internal politics, and executive posturing). And it has a number of divisions that are a drag on the firm’s financial performance.

In a way, the risks represented by both firms are at opposite extremes. For Apple they may actually be too focused and dependent on their CEO; for Microsoft they aren’t focused enough and their CEO and Chief Architect likely need to play much stronger roles in ensuring the firm’s various units are both strategic and contributing to the company’s success.

Microsoft is currently chasing too many competitors where, in more successful years, they had their competitors chasing them.

Wrapping Up: If Apple and Microsoft Die, who or what Kills Them?

Both companies have reached a level of success that would make it nearly impossible for a competitor to take them out. But both face internal threats that could cause the same terminal result.

Remember, DEC, 3-Com, and Netscape were all thought to be immortal in their time – and in some cases market leading – and all are but memories today because they screwed up?

For Apple they need to find a way to back-fill Steve Jobs because no other threat the company will face in the next decade will exceed that of their CEO’s departure (and no one lives forever). For Microsoft they absolutely need to get back to basics and reduce the massive complexity they have created while bringing all units into compliance with high quality (in the customer’s view), profitability goals. They must recover their brand – which has slipped catastrophically – and image.

For Microsoft I think a combination of EMC’s customer loyalty quality program, HP’s Operations and Marketing focus, and the return of a Bill Gates-like intolerance for stupidity would do wonders. The term “empty suit” has been used far too often with good reason at Microsoft in current years (many of whom have been removed belatedly from the firm).

Neither company faces an easy future without their founders, but unlike Dell, neither founder is likely to come back if the firm gets into trouble, so they’d better figure it out.

HP is a good example of a firm that can actually be greater in a post-founder era than they were when the founder was there, but they went through one hell of a valley before they got to their current peak. That valley, particularly if it’s a death valley, can be avoided, but we’ll probably know in 2020 whether both or either firm finds an alternative more successful route.

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