Sunday 14 January 2007

Microsoft vs Apple: The Illusionary War

I have a friend who is such a Mac-Faithful that someone could do a case study on him. I decided to show him my new Zune. They're not available in this country yet, and him being such a huge Apple fan, I imagined he'd be interested in seeing what has been touted as an "iPod Killer" from the company he hates the most: Microsoft.

Oddly, he literally refused to look at it. I may as well have been trying to hold dog shit under his nose: Wherever my hand went, his head would move in the other direction. It was as if he thought it was some sort of voodoo, not just a hard-drive in a plastic case designed to play music. People's reactions to the Zune in general are worth a post in themselves (it's amazing to see so many professional journalists from major publications lose objectivity so quickly), but what interests me is the idea that Microsoft and Apple are at war.

For the first time ever, Apple and Microsoft have gone head to head with a piece of consumer technology with the iPod and Zune, respectively, but judging by my Mac-Faithful friend's attitude and reaction, you'd think they'd been at war for years. Indeed on many "Cult of Mac" style websites the attitude is clear: If you like Apple, by extension it is right, nay, it is your duty, to hate Microsoft for being the stuffy, evil, mega global corporation that they are.

In reality, it serves both company's interests to keep the pretence that they are at war.

For Microsoft, the "evil" software giant, it serves two purposes. For starters, it credits them with doing more than they actually do. Apple, a computer manufacturer, develops the hardware and software for their PCs (for yes, Apple Macs are Personal Computers, too you know!), and sells them in one bundle. Microsoft, however, have nothing to do with the sale of "PCs" except for the writing of Operating System software.

Yet, it serves Microsoft's interests to perpetuate the myth that PCs and Windows go hand in hand. Sure, there's this weird thing called Linux out there, but that's not a "real" PC, no. In order to have a PC you must have Windows. The two are completely inseparable. You simply could not have one without the other. Or at least that's what Microsoft would like you to believe.

In reality, the operating system of any PC, whether it's an Apple or a Dell, is just one of many components that make up the whole. It's hard to argue that it's more important than any other component; for without a graphics card or chip, there would be no visuals; without a harddrive or some memory, instructions and files could not be saved; without a processor you couldn't, well, do anything! Even something a simplistic as removing the keyboard and mouse or monitor would render a computer completely unusable. The operating system may get all the attention, but it wouldn't be anything without something do the work "under the hood", so to speak.

But it sure makes Microsoft look good if people think that they can't have a PC without Windows. In reality, the operating system is as interchangeable as any other component, as long as it does the job you need it to do.

The second reason that the fabricated war with Apple is useful for Microsoft is this: It sure comes in handy when people accuse you of having a monopoly of something. "Of course we don't have a monopoly, just look at our vibrant competitor, Apple", says a nervous Microsoft executive to the Department of Justice (probably). "Everyone knows how we're constantly battling each other! My wife is always commenting on how lovely the computers look in Alley McBeal, for example. It's a constant worry, I tell you."

In reality, Microsoft have such a huge monopoly that most people cannot grasp the idea of having a PC with a choice of operating systems. "Sure, there's Linux, but that's just for tech-heads to play with in their spare time, like a hobby car or model railway, it's not a 'real' option", says a user (probably), but that user wouldn't be far wrong. The average person just wants to be able to go to PC World, pick up some software and run it.

For a quick example of how much of a monopoly Microsoft have, and how successfully people's perceptions of what makes a PC have been altered, just look at computer games. They're available for the PlayStation, the XBox, the Nintendo Wii and PC-CD. It used to be "DOS" or "Windows Compatible PCs", but now, there's no need to specify: A PC-CD simply means Windows. Everyone knows that PC = Windows.

Good for Microsoft, bad for healthy competition!

For Apple, their part in the imaginary war helps with their marketing. The pretend war with Microsoft makes them look like the plucky young contender trying to take on the established, but evil, champion. Like pygmies taking down a giant, monstrous elephant in the jungle, with nothing but blow-darts and pointy sticks. What could be better for any company than to pretend to go head-to-head with probably the most hated company in the world, and actually succeed in tricking people that you're putting up a good fight.

For Apple, it adds to their identity. Everyone loves the underdog, after all, especially when they're competing against a team that everyone hates. Microsoft, however, are not who they are fighting.

To be fair, Apple are at war with so-called "PCs", but that's not Microsoft. Microsoft are not different than Intel, AMD, nVidia, ATI, Corsair, Crucial, Creative, MSI, Asus, Abit, Gigabyte, Netgear, D-Link and thousands of other third-party computer component manufacturers. (Manufacturers that make parts that Apple uses to build their Macs, no less!)

If Apple have one main competitor, one truly rival computer company, it would probably be Dell or CompUSA. They both sell complete computer solutions to consumers, just like Apple.

Apple may have done a brilliant job infecting the public consciousness with the complete lie that if you're doing something creative, anything creative at all, then only a Mac will do, (in reality Photoshop works just as well on a PC as it does on a Mac), but that doesn't have anything to do with Microsoft. It's just Apple fighting for a share of the home computing market from people like Dell, PC World and CompUSA.

Although Microsoft have gotten much better over the years, and have apparently started stepping up to the plate in terms of offering something their users actually need/want, they're still incredibly bureaucratic and make stupid mistakes. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they past ten years were a mistake. Microsoft should never have been put in their position of power, the computer manufacturers like Dell, HP, IBM, etc, should have never just licensed Windows. They should have bought it or something else and developed it themselves, each offering their own competing OS. It would have created a healthy, vibrant, competitive marketplace for consumers and would have altered how we see PC computing today.

Of course, in this day and age we demand a lot more from our operating system than we did ten years ago, and it's likely that even if Microsoft hadn't gotten their initial break that changed everything, that another company would have emerged and started targeting an operating system directly to consumers as a replacement to the one that came with their computer. I actually imagine that, in some other reality, this probably happened a few years ago and was met with headlines in computing magazines such as "New Wave of Independent OSs Pave Way for a Consumer Driven Future".

Well, maybe.

It's very hard to imagine a world in which Microsoft didn't dominate, especially since they dominated so thoroughly during computing's important formative years (when everyone was told for the first time that they needed a computer in their home).

Of course, even if this parallel world idea puts Microsoft as being ahead of their time, offering the user a powerful, all encompassing OS from the outset, it doesn't mean that there shouldn't be another option available to consumers, too.

Microsoft might not be deserving of all the attention and criticism they receive, but they do need a real competitor, not an illusionary one, like Apple.

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