Microsoft wants to become Apple, but can't
Microsoft has a long history of copying Apple. Back in the early 90s, Bill Gates' company introduced features found in the Macintosh GUI into Windows 2.0, sparking a copyright infringement lawsuit (Apple's taste for litigation is nothing new). Microsoft arguably has pilfered ideas from its rival's OS ever since -- Windows’ taskbar and Aero Peek certainly share clear similarities with OS X's Dock and Exposé. When the iPod became a massive hit, Microsoft introduced the Zune. Apple stores are hugely popular, which is why we’re now seeing Microsoft Stores popping up everywhere. Surface, in a way, copies the iPad, although of course Microsoft has tried (and failed) to popularize tablets since 2002.
And yes, before I go too far into this article, I’m aware the above paragraph could be seen as troll bait, so I’ll point out that Microsoft copies from other companies too -- Google being a major example -- and Apple, in turn, has lifted ideas from Microsoft, particularly from its operating system. Big companies copy from one another, it’s a fact of life. My point, however, is when Apple does something exceptionally well, Microsoft is keen to try and follow suit.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to break into the post-PC market, and while it’s a clear gamble, it’s also a necessary one. But in going down this route, the company has to change what it is and how it operates. Microsoft has to become more like Apple. CEO Steve Ballmer released the annual shareholder letter yesterday, which my colleague Joe Wilcox reported on here, and in it he describes Microsoft as transforming into a "devices and services company", meaning its focus will be on end-to-end hardware, software and services products -- like Apple.
This is, as Ballmer says, a "significant shift" for Microsoft. The Windows Store, the firm’s digital distribution platform, is designed to ape Apple’s iTunes Store, giving the company a new revenue stream -- an approach that could, potentially, subsidize future versions of Windows.
In taking this new direction, Microsoft will doubtless also have to change how it rolls out OS updates. Windows RT is the company’s tablet operating system, and while Microsoft could just release a new version every three or four years, as has been its strategy previously with the desktop version, I think we’re likely to see much more regular refreshes as we do with Apple iOS and Google Android.
RT is so close to Windows 8 that any changes made to the tablet OS will need to be carried over into the desktop version too. That Microsoft has already released a cumulative update for Windows 8, instead of dropping a service pack on us a few months down the line, shows this more rapid release schedule is already in effect.
But getting back to the point; the problem I have with this new direction for Microsoft is in transforming itself into an Apple clone, the company risks losing its identity. The Windows Store isn't iTunes, it’s Google Play but with less choice. Surface is the iPad, with less mainstream appeal. Windows Phone 8 is a less popular alternative to the iPhone and all those Android handsets. Microsoft Stores are horrible Apple Store knock-offs.
Microsoft wants to make money, it wants to be relevant and popular, but in trying to reinvent itself and catch up to rivals, it seems to have lost all sense of what it is. Microsoft can’t be Apple, and it can’t be bigger and better than Apple by stealing from its rival’s playbook.
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs said of the company in Triumph of the Nerds: "The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. And I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their products."
Although that quote comes from 1996, it seems even more relevant today.