Quake, Google: Redmond is playing a long game

By Mic Wright on June 26th, 2012

Apple makes shiny things. Amazing shiny things. Shiny things that make me go mad. Shiny things that turn normally stoic journalists into dogs rolling on their backs with their bellies in the air, begging for titbits.

That’s fine. It’s more than fine; it’s awesome. The death of Steve Jobs was terrible, as all early deaths and most deaths in general are, but Apple prevails. It’s built around a Jobsian mindset of superb marketing and control. It has his DNA woven into its processes and its thinking.

Microsoft is a different beast. It is like the Roman Empire. The founding emperor has gone off to far-flung regions to do good works and his successor, while strong, lacks vision. Microsoft is factional and structurally complex. The Windows group, the hardware group, the Office group, the Xbox group and so on.

These siloed departments compete for attention, time and funding. But Microsoft still prospers. The share price may have remained stagnant, but the profits are big and the creativity is still there.

In the consumer space, Microsoft’s powerhouses are still Windows, the Xbox and Xbox Live. Kinect offers a glimpse at a gesture-powered future for computing and the amount of time, money and brains put into research by Microsoft suggest it will continue to churn out interesting developments even if it does not always turn them into lucrative consumer products.

The interesting sector for Microsoft is enterprise. Its purchase of Yammer, otherwise known as “Twitter for business groups”, is a smart move and futher augments its offering as easily the match of Google’s “free” and low cost cloud productivity suite Google Docs.

Office and Windows are to computing what English is to language: universally understood ways of working. By continuing to bolster its enterprise offerings and to strengthen its position in the cloud, Microsoft is preparing itself for a renaissance.

Similarly, in mobile, Windows Phone was a surprisingly compelling product that stood out when compared to the iOS devices offered by Apple. Microsoft has Android in a chokehold, taking a cut of every sale Google and its partners make, thanks to the aggressive use of patents.

While the new Microsoft Surface tablets won’t hit the market for some time, Windows 8 looks capable of being a compelling alternative to the iPad. So Google should be peering anxiously in its rearview mirror. Because Microsoft knows Mountain View is its biggest enemy these days.

The iPad will continue to dominate the tablet market and the iPhone will take another leap ahead of its competitors when this summer’s hardware is unveiled. At this point, Microsoft can’t make a play for number one in tablets or phones.

However, what it can do is take Google down, forcing it into third place. My prediction is that Microsoft and Apple will take the top two positions in tablets and phones over the next five years and force Google to really push its own hardware, throwing its OEM partners under the bus just as Microsoft has done with its tablet announcements.

The problem with much of the analysis around the Google, Apple, Microsoft nexus is that tech journalists generally love Apple, admire Google and find Microsoft boring. But Microsoft plays a very long game and tends to make fewer large-scale strategic blunders than Google. (The sort of disasters normally written up as “brave experiments” by the blogosphere.)

As I wrote yesterday, Google’s bosses have put themselves in direct conflict with Apple and will soon see their profitable take from iOS devices cut as the brains at 1 Infinite Loop remove Google-branded services.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is steadily consolidating its place in enterprise and Windows will hold the bulk of the sub-£1,000 computing market for consumers, a space Apple is only willing to play in with the iPad.

The recent refresh to the MacBook Air line and the introduction of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display shows Cupertino is not going to enter the affordable end of the market any time soon. Apple will own premium, Microsoft will own the mass market and Google?

As usual, the geeky behemoth will have to go back to the interactive whiteboard.