How Microsoft won and Apple didn't lose

The end of the year offers a chance to compare the two companies which most strongly symbolize the tech industry through the years.

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Winning, quietly.

James Martin/CNET

These two are like George Clooney and Russell Crowe.

They've been around forever, yet still somehow manage to do enough to recalibrate themselves for a new generation.

Sometimes, their work verges on the vacuous. Sometimes, they'll go and do something genuinely surprising that makes you think they have hidden depths.

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Still in 2018, Microsoft and Apple managed to maintain a significance that defies time. Why, for one shining moment, Microsoft's market capitalization exceeded even Apple's this year.

The bigger transformation is, of course, Microsoft's.

Stealthily, it's moved away from being Windows, Bill Gates, and a vast vat of nasty to being a company that seems to have so many digits in so many pies that it needs to use its toes.

It isn't just that CEO Satya Nadella has cleverly projected an image of human decency -- despite his adoration of the corrupted game of cricket.

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It's that Redmond has managed to cease being a byword for the worst unpleasantnesses that the tech world can offer.

Step forward, Google and Facebook. The ugly box is all yours. Microsoft is enjoying an image makeover, while you babble blessed nothings in front of clueless politicians and become the symbols of youthful indiscretion, hubris, and Juul-puffing ignorance.

It's not easy to point to one thing that propelled Microsoft around the corner. Some might say the intelligence of understanding the cloud showed the way. Some will point to the wily acquisitions of LinkedIn -- quite the worst $50 I spend every month -- and GitHub as proving that Microsoft has shed its crudely rapacious image.

For me, though, it's the slow, positive creep of Surface.

At the onset, Surface was a joke. Launched with one of the worst ads ever made by allegedly sentient brains, Microsoft's attempt at tablet hardware has gained a sneaky credibility.

Even though on NFL segments I've still heard it referred to as Microsoft Surface, I know enough people now who are sufficiently confident to just refer to it as my Surface.

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No, it's not remotely as strong as the Mac -- or, for that matter, Xbox -- but the fact that Surface has gained some independence and credibility bodes well for Redmond's own stature as a remarkable survivor and a company that can connect with real people, without (entirely) annoying them to high heaven.

Apple managed to connect with real people with an unseemly effortlessness for decades.

Apple store employees still chuckle about the fact their store is always full and the Microsoft store down the mall is emptier than a troll's head.

It hasn't, though, been a year of uncontrolled triumphs for Cupertino.

Three new phones, but a lot of griping that they're not selling as well as they should. Finally, a new MacBook Air, but an air of oh, computers are old hat, you should really be using an iPad Pro.

And where is the AirPower that Apple promised, then failed to deliver?

Also: What makes Microsoft tick?

That's why it's fun to be Microsoft. The expectations are lower. The potential for (positive) surprise is much higher.

Oddly -- and sadly, in my view -- the most, um, revolutionary product that Apple has concocted over the last couple of years is the AirPod.

It's hard to fathom how committed people seem to be to these things. I feel sure there is a monstrous swathe of Americans who go to bed wearing them, and wake up still wearing them.

I know that I went to AT&T store and the saleswoman kept one in her ear while we talked and explained that she likes to listen to music all the time.

Yes, even when she's talking to customers.

One thing that Microsoft and Apple have in common is sane, sensible leadership, something so sorely lacking in far too many tech companies.

For Apple, Tim Cook has certainly been the best, the strongest and the most lucid leader in all of tech, ready to at least occasionally fight difficult battles for decency.

Nadella, though, has been wily in creating a culture of collaboration with other companies and a sense of embracing enterprise, rather than trying to choke it into submission.

Also: Tim Cook calls for Bloomberg to retract controversial chip story

It's almost entertaining that these two companies should somehow come out on top, when you might imagine both could have been usurped and crushed by some newcomers helmed by arrogant boys with attitude.

They must know what they're doing, at least to some extent. 

Which means they might even know what they're going to do next year to keep it going. While Facebook and Google are gouged at by politicians out for a little public blood.

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