For the last four months, I have been a full-time user of Apple products both personally and professionally with my Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
This Apple-centric, end-user lifestyle is a significant departure from the first 25 years of my career. In that former professional life, I was a systems integrator, technology advisor, and architect at companies like Unisys, IBM, Microsoft, and Dimension Data, where I designed complex on-premises and cloud environments using Microsoft Windows, Linux and Open Source, Unix, and mainframes.
Apple was never part of that equation. The company’s products were frequently a subject of ridicule in not just my professional life among colleagues and customers but also in my recommendations to friends and family.
I have seen both sides of the coin and been an acolyte or preacher of every dominant technology platform religion that exists in our industry. As a user and technology practitioner, I have maintained every sort of bias one can have — which is a natural outcome of being exposed to any particular technology at any time throughout a long career. I attribute these biases to getting used to things that routinely work for one’s self and one’s clients.
I now really enjoy being a Mac and Apple products user, I recommend their products heavily, and I think I would find it very difficult to go back to using Windows as my computing environment of choice.
But that doesn’t mean I no longer assign value to Microsoft — far from it. I use the entire suite of Office 365 applications daily on my Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone — and on my Android devices. I shudder to think about what the overall end-user experience on Apple’s products would be like if Microsoft was not such a prolific developer of application software for that ecosystem.
Additionally, the future of Microsoft is very much in the cloud. In my professional opinion, there is no better hyper-scale cloud provider than Azure in terms of all-around functionality and support for Microsoft platforms and Open Source software. The future of the industry as it pertains to highly componentized, service-oriented, application-oriented, and intelligent cloud systems is clearly what the company is all about now. Windows, it seems, has taken a permanent back seat for net new business growth at Microsoft. It’s now all about Azure and being an application service provider for Redmond.
With Microsoft becoming the mobile application software and cloud company, you would think that its relationship with Apple would be one of most-favored status. But the way I perceive it is anything but warm and complimentary.
Although these two tech giants have changed significantly since their inception during the late 1970s, the old school animosity between the two companies forged by their founders, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, is still very much a haunting presence. Frankly, I feel this decades-long bad blood between the two companies — as an outcome of being natural competitors in the desktop and mobile space — needs to be buried, permanently.
I believe relieving the burden of much of this remaining animosity rests on Apple’s shoulders, not Microsoft’s. If anything, Microsoft has been an ideal partner as a highly prolific app developer for Apple. Apple just hasn’t provided the ability for Microsoft to more tightly integrate with its platforms that a true strategic partnership would afford them.
For example, take a look at Microsoft’s Surface Headphones, which recently went on sale on Prime Day. These are voice command-enabled with Cortana and work not just on Windows, but also iPhone/iPad and the Mac. But they are dumb headphones on the Mac, and on iOS, none of that voice functionality works unless the Cortana application is running in the foreground.
Had Microsoft been given low-level access to iOS and MacOS to write a Cortana service provider for Siri, those headphones could do a whole lot more. And this is only one small example.
Apple itself is now at a crossroads. Its platforms have reached a significant level of maturity in which not much else can be done in terms of adding new functionality. What we see now in terms of iPhone, iPad, and Mac developments is incremental user experience types of improvements and the usual hardware spec bumps that are to be expected on a year-by-year basis.
This stagnation in overall product development is heavily reflected in the slowdown in the net new growth of its platforms. Sure, there’s a replacement cycle, but Apple isn’t adding a lot of new customers to its overall user base. To encourage growth, the company has mainly been branching out into subscription services, such as music, television, games, content apps like News+, and now financial services with Apple Pay and Apple Card.
No, I do not forget the renewed focus on content creation professionals for the Mac — but it’s a relatively small part of Apple’s business compared to everything else in its portfolio.
Much of the services-oriented future Apple is pursuing is fully dependent on the cloud. Apple is not a cloud company; that’s not where its strengths lie. Today, its primary cloud partners are Amazon and IBM — and to date, these partnerships have not yielded much in terms of overall benefit for the company or its customers.
Amazon is far more of an existential threat to Apple in the Internet of Things and to consumer cloud services than Microsoft could ever be. And yet Apple spends reportedly $30 million a month at AWS as a cloud infrastructure provider.
Whatever vertical apps that IBM is developing for iOS are such a niche that it’s questionable that they have any real value to Apple itself. Other than for it to be able to say it has a few shared vertical customers, it’s an IBM story and not an Apple one. It’s been good for occasional sound bites and Tim and Ginni photo ops for Big Blue, but nothing more. And now IBM is going to be much more preoccupied with its $34B acquisition of Red Hat, its new shiny thing.
Microsoft’s Azure and 365 are the keys to Apple’s future products and services being able to fulfill their highest potential. In particular, Microsoft’s investments around AI and Machine Learning in the cloud would make the difference between Siri remaining the industry’s biggest not-so-intelligent agent joke — and becoming the very smartest in the industry. But only if the companies committed to building a single intelligent agent together.
Imagine a Siri with the back-end capabilities of Cortana or an Apple Watch with Azure’s Machine Learning services that would allow healthcare providers to understand the sensor data better.
Or Azure-based image and video processing that would allow users of mobile devices such as the iPhone and the iPad to perform the sort of editing that would usually only be possible on high-end content creation workstations.
Or an agreement between the two companies to partner together on augmented and mixed reality — an area that Microsoft has developed a lot of expertise in with HoloLens.
You could pretty much guarantee that anything their competitors are doing in this space, such as Facebook’s Oculus, Magic Leap, or whatever Google or Samsung is working on would become irrelevant overnight.
Like a classic burger and fries pairing, these two companies are now far more complementary with the products and services they develop than in areas in which they compete with each other.
That wasn’t always the case, and there were other issues — mostly ones of personal animosity and industry envy between its founders and former key executives in areas which they coveted the most — that are no longer relevant in an age of mobile devices and cloud services. As industry veterans, both are being challenged by the hungry and less-trustworthy newer kids on the block — Google and Amazon, Facebook, and other up and comers seeking to displace them.
What we need is a true partnership. I am not proposing a merger, but a firm commitment to a long-term strategic relationship, a ten-year minimum agreement to work together on integrating Apple and Microsoft’s respective platforms and technologies.
It would be a leap of faith for both of them given their long history, but the two now complement each other so deliciously — and it would be a shame not to unite them.
Do Apple and Microsoft need to make nice after over 40 years of hostility? Talk Back and Let Me Know.