I spent the first two days of this week at a Microsoft event covering virtualization and management tools. This is a group that, if nothing else, has its act together, based on the customers I interviewed at the event. These customers outlined the reason they prefer Microsoft in one simple sentence: It makes what is complex manageable. At the same time, I was still digesting the "Inside Steve's Brain" book that profiles Steve Jobs. Were I to highlight his core strength, it would be that he makes what is complex simple.
To continue this comparison, Microsoft has as its target customer IT, but is typically far removed from the end user and often lacks control over the solution. Steve Jobs thinks IT folks are so out of touch they wouldn't know a good product if it bit them and focuses on creating products that users will line up to buy.
In some strange way, over time, Microsoft has kind of become IBM, while Apple has, with Steve Jobs' return, refocused on being Apple. While Microsoft is struggling in Apple's desktop space, it is growing in strong double digits in the back office, and while Apple's servers are insignificant, it is growing in strong double digits on the desktop. And the iPhone, with the near-term release of the 2.0 product, is probably on the verge of going vertical.
What If Apple and Microsoft Partnered?
You might first ask why they would partner. I'd say Google would be a good reason. Google's Android platform, which will be largely based on lessons learned from both Microsoft's and Apple's efforts, could hit both companies like a ton of bricks. While a more material threat to Apple's iPhone near term, Microsoft views Google in general as its current primary competitor, suggesting the two firms might have a common foe. In fact, if you think about it, Apple and Microsoft are already partnering more closely with the version 2.0 iPhone anyway because Apple has licensed ActiveSync. This will allow the iPhone to integrate into a Microsoft ecosystem better initially than the Google Android offering should.
Now if we draw a line from where the iPhone is, as I mentioned earlier, it's probably the best shot Apple has of being the dominant provider of personal computers -- if we redefine the iPhone as a PC. If you were to compare the capability of the iPhone to the first Mac or IBM PC, it potentially is more capable.
I think the model that Apple is using for the iPhone is a better one, in terms of application control and user experience, than anyone (including Apple itself) is providing on the desktop. The only products that seem to come close are the new MID products Intel has been showcasing, and the best ones run Linux, creating an additional threat for both Apple and Microsoft.
Could Apple and Microsoft Combine?
Probably not ("when pigs fly" comes to mind), but boy, you'd sure like to see the faces of the Google executives if such a combination were announced. They may not get too excited about the Microsoft/Yahoo merger, but a Microsoft/Apple tight partnership would keep the Google folks up at night.
However, if Apple wants to continue to grow share, eventually it will have to address the needs of IT and couple more tightly with back-office type solutions. And if Microsoft wants to be viewed more positively, it needs to come up with a desktop solution that people are more excited about. In some ways, both companies would likely benefit if they spent a little more time understanding why and where the other was dominant, but right now, Microsoft + Apple actually makes more sense than Microsoft vs. Apple, with regard to where both would like to go.