Microsoft can't out-cool Apple

Microsoft wants to be invited into your living room - but Apple looks the cooler bet

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told UK journalist at a press briefing on Monday that he feels the market for converged digital devices in the home is at a 'tipping point' - Malcolm Gladwell's useful phrase for that dramatic moment when something unusual suddenly becomes ubiquitous. He's right: we've gone digital and we want our toys.

Microsoft longs to own that market. It has ambitious plans to dominate the software and standards in consumer audio and video: it did it for business and it feels it has a right to win here too. Yet Microsoft, as Ballmer admits, has been chasing this particular train for nearly a decade but to no real effect. Worse, after all Microsoft's efforts it's Apple which has the market at its feet, with the killer iPod and iTunes combo winning hearts, minds and wallets worldwide.

The convergence market plays directly to Apple's strengths in industrial design and ease of use. The new G5 Macintosh already looks like a TV from the future and with a tuner card it will be. It's a long way from the drab standard PCs running Microsoft's Media Center, most of which seem to have been designed by people in love with 1970s era hi-fi.

At a Financial Analyst's meeting earlier this year, Ballmer said that he tells Microsoft people: "The goal is to be first…You want to be the first guy to be cool, too." He's exactly right to highlight the element of fashionable excitement that signifies consumer passion for a new product, and this is exactly what Apple has achieved in this space. Microsoft, despite all its efforts, its partnerships, its lobbying and its marketing, has not.

It has all the pieces, same as Apple: music hardware, media management, online music stores. What it does not have is the cool itself. Like the geeky kid sitting out the school disco, it knows everything about being cool except how to do it. And it really, really hates those who can carry it off. "Apple can't do it," says Ballmer of the complete converged environment: what he means is if Microsoft can't do it with all that money and marketing muscle, he's damned if he see how anyone else can.

You don't tell people you're cool. You show it. You offer it. You have to know what people want, and then give them more than they expect. Microsoft doesn't have that gene: it tells, not hears. And that won't play in the cool converged consumer space.