No, Apple and Microsoft aren’t trading places

Despite talk that Microsoft is taking over Apple’s mantle of innovation, it isn’t actually happening. Yet.

No, Apple and Microsoft aren’t trading places

For the past couple of weeks, the interwebs have been buzzing with talk that Microsoft and Apple have somehow switched positions in the tech world. The formerly staid folks in Redmond, so the theory goes, are now the cool technology innovators, while the once audacious corps in Cupertino has been reduced to milking existing cash cows.

The idea got rolling in reaction to a provocative post by legendary entrepreneur Steve Blank, who compared Tim Cook’s regime as Apple’s designated caretaker following Steve Jobs to the long, slow decline at Microsoft under Steve Ballmer, Bill Gate’s designated replacement. And the meme took off with the dueling announcements of Microsoft’s slick new Surface Studio computer and Apple’s underwhelming update of its Macbook Pro laptop

Some grains of truth

There’s enough truth here to explain why the idea quickly became a talking point. Apple’s latest round of products, from Macbook Pro to the iPhone 7 to the Apple Watch 2, have hardly seemed revolutionary. And developers and creative professionals, long devoted to Apple, are not hiding their displeasure at some of the company’s moves. 

At the same time, Microsoft has won new fans with design-centric products like the Surface line and is finally making a big business for itself in the cloud, from Azure to Office 365 and beyond (though it still trails far behind Amazon in this area). 

But as often happens in the overheated atmosphere of the internet, people are getting way ahead of themselves. 

Cook vs. Ballmer?

Sure, Cook and Ballmer we both anointed successors of charismatic founders who built huge, dominant companies based on their prescient vision and passion. But just as Gates and Jobs were very, very different, it’s hard to find many similarities among Ballmer and Cook.

Ballmer is a boisterous marketer, notoriously prone to giddy displays of over-emotion. Cook is a careful, meticulous process guy, famously devoted to optimizing the supply chain. That difference plays out in the mistakes and missed opportunities of their tenures. Ballmer bet big on things such as mobile but failed to crack the market in a meaningful way (it’s hard to see the Nokia acquisition he championed as anything other than a disaster). 

Apple, meanwhile, “courageously” introduced a tepidly received smartwatch and ditched a headphone jack—its plans to revolutionize television and crash the car market may never see the light of day.

Same as it ever was

In fact, despite all these changes, Microsoft and Apple still rule the same areas they always have. Apple still makes bank on high-end smartphones in its carefully tended walled garden, and its computers remain the machines of choice among the hipsters and digirati building apps in Silicon Valley and beyond. Its attempts to leverage the cloud have not progressed particularly well, and its penetration of the corporate market remains largely limited to the creative classes. 

Microsoft, meanwhile, remains committed to the corporate and mass markets. Windows remains ubiquitous in the enterprise, and the company’s cloud and social services are still squarely aimed at the enterprise, not consumers. (Remember, Microsoft bought LinkedIn but has shown little interest in Twitter.) As noted above, far from challenging Apple on its home turf, Microsoft has been forced to pretty much abandon its mobile ambitions. 

So, sure, the lines between the two companies’ positioning have blurred a bit. But Tim Cook is not Steve Ballmer, or Bill Gates. And Satya Nadella ain’t nuthin’ like Steve Jobs. Apple and Microsoft remain a long, long way from trading places—it’s just that as they continue to evolve, some of the distinct differences no longer seem so important.

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