Microsoft's Apple deja vu all over again

Am I the only one who see's Redmond's continued rehashing of the PC vs. Mac wars as a sign of weakness? This is especially true of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's recent comments (aka slam) saying the "tide has really turned back" on Apple, while pointing to the lamest Windows machines on the market.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Am I the only one who see's Redmond's continued rehashing of the PC vs. Mac wars as a sign of weakness? This is especially true of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's recent comments (aka slam) saying the "tide has really turned back" on Apple, while pointing to the lamest Windows machines on the market.

And if we take him at his word, all computers are the same. Does anyone really believe that?

In a speech to the Media Summit New York crowd, Ballmer said that customers were paying a $500 premium for an Apple computer, which was "the same piece of hardware" as the competition. In this economy, he said that premium was a "more challenging proposition" for the average person.

First, what is this continuing slam of Apple by Redmond? We can understand Apple, the underdog in the world of computing, pumping itself up and crowing about its unique qualities. And making the PC the bumkin: that is Apple's proposition. But Microsoft, does the market leader need to pump up its base?

Perhaps it's because Microsoft keeps under-executing on its strategies. Like this admission by Ballmer earlier in the month that Windows Mobile 6.5 may not click with customer expectations?

During its own Public Sector CIO Summit, a TechFlash story quotes Ballmer responding to a question on competition from the Apple iPhone and Google Android phones:

"We have a significant release coming this year. Not the full release we wanted to have this year but we have a significant release coming this year with Windows Mobile 6.5. I think that would look a lot like the phone that I showed that was in the slide, but very good catch, very impressed. (Laughter.) He was right on both scores, very good.

"But I think with Windows Mobile 6.5, there will be phones in market this year. We still don't get some of the things that people want on the highest-end phones. Those will come on Windows Mobile 7 next year. Certainly I'm not, um — there's opportunities for us to accelerate our execution in this area, and we've done a lot of work to really make sure we have a team that's going to be able to accelerate.

Now, that's confidence in the execution.

So Apple is now Microsoft's big target, replacing Linux as the bad wannabe that will lead good and loyal PC users astray.

Remember back in September, when Microsoft started a pride campaign with its "Hello, I'm a PC" series of television spots? PC users are hip. Why does Microsoft care so much about the cool factor of Wintel? They are Number One.

Check out: Microsoft vs. Apple: Beware of your 'killer instinct'

The other day, when Ballmer was asked if his family bought Apple, even for an iPod, he said "no, none." His sons and wife were 100 percent loyal to Microsoft.

This could be the basis for a new telenovela about the secret use of iPhones by the Redmond elite? Do Windows Mobile customers drink Chardonnay or Pinot Noir? It's the 21 Century Falcon Crest.

What's crazy here is Ballmer's thesis that all computers are a commodity, whatever the price-point, all the hardware is the same.

This is on the face of it, ridiculous. Certainly, you can't compare the functionality, power and performance of a mainstream notebook (PC or Mac) with a netbook (Linux or Windows).

Yet, this is exactly the thinking going on today. It leads to crazy comparisons, such as that found in Laptop class warfare: Apple vs. Asus.

CNET's Brooke Crothers offers his "take:"

The Apple MBA and Dell Adamo are compelling designs with larger screens, faster processors, better graphics, and more advanced storage options than Asus and Acer Netbooks.

But they don't best the Netbooks in some important respects: First and foremost, portability — Netbooks win here — plus, wireless options are essentially identical; battery life is a toss-up; higher-capacity storage is available on Netbooks; and running everyday applications is not necessarily that much faster on luxury laptops.

Note how the word "luxury" here echos Ballmer's thinking. All PCs are mostly alike in functionality, but some just cost more. It's just luxury, like fur trim on a coat, not that the trade-offs of performance and mobility in different product categories might actually mean something to users.

Oh, and then there's that pesky Mac OS, it's the same as Vista, right?

Ballmer keeps rerunning the tired old Windows PC mindset: all computers are the same, all users are the same, and all applications and OSes are the same — so be happy with Windows and the cheapest PC possible.

Instead, computing is about the individual user and the work that he/she needs to get done. This means different things to different people. (Besides, I don't get how Microsoft's topsy-turvey user value proposition can sustain it for the long term (or even the short term. Linux is cheaper than Windows, dude.)

In addition, this attitude supposes that there's no difference in quality in hardware anymore.

Go down to an Apple Store and pick up a MacBook and MacBook Pro and feel how solid it is and how its keyboard feels. This tells you something about quality. My old ThinkPad was a totally different design concept than my Mac but it had the same solid feeling of quality.

Apple's line is that the sub-$500 mobile market is mostly underpowered and in terms of quality: cheap. These machines may meet some entry price point, especially in this economy, but customers will discover that a commodity box can't do the things they want to get done.

The Apple strategy supposes that all users, whether business or consumer, want (or need) to create content, and not just view it. The better the client performance (in hardware and software), and reliability, the better the user experience. The company is focused on that customer experience.

If Apple comes out with a netbook, then it will describe the capabilities of that machine very differently than Microsoft. Like it did with the iPod, it may define the category and present the value proposition of its hardware, software and services, in a way that customers can understand.

Back in 1986, I remember talking with an owner of the very first generation of Macs, the 128K original. He said it did "everything he needed." Then he paused.

"But, what I really want is spell checking," he admitted. This was something that didn't work on the 128K wonder, but was easily on the just-released Mac Plus, with its bigger RAM and hard drive.

Just as then, it is today. All computers ain't the same.

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