How Apple's Resurgence Led to Microsoft's Newfound Success

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

There was a time when the Microsoft behemoth was running roughshod over the underdog Apple. Apple was very cool and did wonderful things with software development, but the boutique UNIX company was being crushed. Oddly, Apple's current resurgence has also led to Microsoft's.


I lived through the days in the 1990s when Apple struggled against Microsoft almost in the same way the Star Trek Federation struggled against the Klingons. Many of use revelled in being underdogs in a holy war—we knew we had the best hardware, OS, and software technologies. But the world wouldn't listen. Millions of everyday people happily used Windows at work and then at home. They suffered, but carried on with loyal hearts to our great chagrin.

I'm not here to tell the story of how Apple, starting with the iPod in 2001, turned it around over the next decade But what has struck me lately is how, in my perception, the success of Apple first, forced Microsoft's hand under Steve Ballmer, and then resulted in what looks like a clarifying vision from the new CEO Satya Nadella.

Of course Microsoft isn't out of the woods. The company is still shackled by its past, a past that found it mired in poor executive vision and teamwork. Plus destructive Apple envy.  Not to mention the lack of a true technical visionary—as Apple had with Steve Jobs.

I like a lot about Microsoft today. It's fierce legal fight for the privacy of its users is a breath of fresh air. The technical vision of Mr. Nadella has left the obsessive, destructive past of Steven Sinofsky's "Windows Everywhere" behind. Over the past year, Microsoft has found its sense of proportion and direction.

This was driven home for me by my article of the week by Woody Leonhard at InfoWorld. "Satya Nadella at one year: Grading Microsoft's CEO." There, Mr. Leonhard writes:

Nadella came up with a completely different approach -- mobile first, cloud first, Windows best (when it's finally ready) -- that's struck a resounding chord. As a longtime Windows wonk, I find it hard to admit it, but the push to put Microsoft products on every platform has suddenly made Microsoft a player in an increasingly platform-agnostic world.

Think about it. Modern technical consumers, in a highly mobile world, aren't interested in being tied to a single OS platform, loaded with constraints and agenda. People have things to accomplish, and the combination of the Internet almost everywhere and a host of productive apps to achieve mini-tasks means that Microsoft ought to be about the business of providing solutions. That could be the Azure cloud. It could be MS Office on an iPad. Or on Android.

And yet, by the numbers, Windows is still a dominant OS and Microsoft will continue working on it. Recently, Satya Nadella said: "We have bigger hopes, higher aspirations for Windows. We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows, to loving Windows. That is our bold goal."

Next page: Apple's Rough Waters

Page 2 - Apple's Rough Waters


Interestingly, as Apple has sought to restructure OS X to make it a stronger partner with iOS, OS X is getting less and less love. Apple's decisions seem to focus on the idea of, "If it's so easy in iOS, why is it so different in OS X?"

The results have been a dumbing down of OS X, violations of good UI practices, and problematic integration via the large and unwieldy iCloud. Worse, in some cases, long time Apple customers aren't given proper technical choices. Instead they're forced to go along, gulping down their heartburn with insular solutions. All this has led to the very same corporate agendas that failed Microsoft in the past.

It almost feels sometimes that Apple is desperate not to fail in a day when failure is essentially impossible. Unforced errors abound. Microsoft, on the other hand, chastened by Apple's very success is now distilling its vision, finding its rightful place in the tech universe. Or at least trying.

In Star Trek, there came a day when Captain James T. Kirk had to put aside his hatred for the Klingons and accept that the Klingons were the new ally. It was a bitter pill to swallow. However, when these political upheavals occur, the question for leaders is how to accept, move on and prosper. Or even exploit the better conditions. Can Apple?

I see Microsoft now in a new relationship with Apple. There are opportunities in essential partnerships. Under sober and smart new leadership, Microsoft has recognized its strengths and has an emerging vision. The Apple-Microsoft war is over. Now it's time for the Apple, like the Federation, to find its way based on a more proactive, less combative vision.

For Apple, it's no longer about destroying Windows. The so-called photocopier war is over. There are huge challenges ahead for Apple, and the company will need to attack them with great resource management, technical finesse and humility. The arrogance derived from a superior technical past must be replaced with a sound, but humble technical strategy for how customers elegantly solve their problems and recover from snafus, not just glory in jazzy new stuff that makes the competition look bad. It's not a happy-go-lucky "OS X Snow Leopard" world anymore.

The condition is moving from: "My Mac/iPhone is so much cooler than your shitty PC/smartphone" to a new phase. "Is Apple gracefully, and with grand vision, robustly meeting customer needs on both OS platforms? Or must every new endeavor be a disappointment?"

The InfoWorld article linked above is a lot to digest, and there wasn't a lot of news debris collected this week, so we'll wrap it up here.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.