Apple, Microsoft and Google Play High-Stakes Musical Chairs

The last decade seemed to be about the decline of Microsoft, the dominance of Apple, and the emergence of Google. As we go into this decade, Microsoft seems to be trending up, Apple looks increasingly at risk, and Google looks more and more like the Microsoft of a decade ago. It is almost as if the companies have shuffled and changed chairs.

I’ll point out some of the recent indicators of these shifts and close with my product of the week, which has to be this beautiful blue — matches my eyes — HTC 8X.

The New Evil Empire

There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by that I don’t see an article on Google doing something dangerous or stupid. Over the last couple of years, it has had its people chased out of European towns with pitchforks, had unapproved robotic cars driving down freeways (they are now approved), and had a massive number of privacy issues.

It even appears to be trying to have it both ways during the current election. For the Democrats, it is apparently sandboxing bloggers who speak out against Obama — this is an old practice.

I’m told it has increased significantly its contribution to Romney’s PAC, where most of the powerful personal Obama attacks originate. It kind of looks as if Google is hedging its bets, but I’m thinking what’s more likely is that it could end up pissing off both of these guys significantly.

As I write this, there is a mounting push to regulate the company for deceptive practices. I just got the proposal in email, and it should be on the Huffington Post by the time my column publishes.

After watching Eric Schmidt during his All Things Digital talk a few weeks ago, when he demonstrated more arrogance and misinformation than a political candidate, I’m wondering if the Google execs are bored and think regulation will address their boredom problem. That guy really shouldn’t be allowed in front of audiences.

I can see wanting to beat Microsoft, but the race to be broken up or heavily regulated doesn’t seem like a smart race to win.

On the Wane

Apple is generating an impressive amount of bad news. It missed on its financials, which really shouldn’t happen, given it sandbags — that is, it sets expectations it knows it can exceed. It remains tied to Foxconn, which appears to carry the tag line “Employee Abuses ‘R’ Us”. Also, its new product, the iPad mini, was priced a whopping 65 percent over market.

OK, I get you have loyal customers who will buy what you sell, but what do you think is going to happen when those loyal customers run out, regular customers avoid this extremely high price, and you have to drop the price sharply to move inventory? This has happened before, and it never ends well.

The company is building a new showcase headquarters, which suggests they will fall victim to the Silicon Valley curse: Every company that has built a showcase headquarters has gone into decline afterward, and most don’t exist as independent companies anymore.

It just did a Big Bang launch — the kind of launch that defines traditional PC companies, the pre-Steve Jobs Apple, and both lower margins and less-exciting products.

Finally it just fired two of its top people — the guy who owned the Apple software experience and the guy who ran the Apple Stores. The first position now reports to design, because hardware designers and programmers are about as similar as fish and birds, and the second reports to Tim Cook because a guy trained in supply channel is a natural for consumer retail. Great skill set matches (he said sarcastically).

Granted, there is a lot of pressure being the No. 1 company in the world, so the fix apparently is to no longer be that. Jobs may yet come back from the grave to kick Cook’s butt.

Days of Revelation

These last few days have been eye opening. I went from seeing Apple do a launch that looked like it was planned by Compaq to watching Microsoft do two launches that appeared to have been planned by Steve Jobs. Both the Windows 8 launch in New York and the Windows Phone 8 launch in San Francisco (this one is almost a dead on copy, you should watch the video) were right out of Carmine Gallows’ Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs books. I’m pretty sure he had something to do with the first one, because he was pointing out the similarities himself.

Microsoft focused heavily on the Surface tablet at the launch, and the idea of the tablet is very Apple-like — iconic, simple, with marketable features. The Windows Phone 8 launch was even more Apple-like. Both had prepped audiences applauding and cheering; both were rich in hyperbole (“stunning,” “amazing,” etc.) and product benefits; and both left out all the boring corporate crap that companies other than Apple like to dredge up to pound us over the head.

The Phone launch even had the iconic “one more thing” from the first iPod launch — one of the best launches Jobs ever did. Microsoft gave out hot phones to the attendees that were fully configured and provisioned. (The first iPod came with a huge stack of ripped CDs.)

Even the ad campaigns surrounding these products appear reasonably well-funded, and they are decent ads — something that Apple is famous for. I’ve been using both Surface and Windows Phone 8 for much of the last week, and these are surprisingly good products — particularly when used together. Who knew Microsoft could still execute at this level?

Wrapping Up: Changing of the Guard

It really looks to me like Google wants to be in the evil empire box desperately and is doing everything in its power to get there. I think it will find, as Microsoft did, that it is far easier to get into that box than out of it.

Apple is trending back to the way it was before Jobs returned: increasing its noncompetitive products, lowering its marketing quality; facing executive issues; and, worse, losing its ability to lead its chosen markets. I mean, seriously, the iPad mini is pretty much a small iPad 2 at a huge premium price.

In contrast, Microsoft appears to be executing surprisingly well of late. Its Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 launches went surprisingly well, given an almost impossibly difficult product to sell, and its new Surface tablet makes the iPad look, well, incomplete.

If this keeps up, the end of the decade is going to look a lot different for all three companies than the beginning did.

Product of the Week: HTC’s Windows Phone 8X

Product of the Week

I’ve been a Windows Phone user since the beginning. While I’ve used several Android phones over the years, I keep coming back, because the Windows experience is best with an Exchange email server, which is what I have. If you need to take a fast picture, there is no phone type quicker than a Windows phone, and I take a lot of pictures.

HTC's Windows Phone8X

HTC’s Windows Phone 8X

I got this HTC 8X phone as part of the Windows Phone 8 launch — that “one more thing” was this phone. Benefits are a strong camera, a beautiful display, Beats Audio (HTC bought Beats), and a really pretty blue color that almost matches my car. I thought it was because someone knew what I drove — then realized everyone got a blue one.

The really cool part is how well this works with my new Microsoft Surface tablet and SkyDrive account. in fact, the secret sauce here is how well the current generation of products work with each other.

Music can flow across the Xbox and the entire Windows offering — same with pictures and files. Once you learn the interface on one product, it works very similarly on the rest. So this is a great platform and phone.

That said, given that I often buy cars because they match my blue eyes (my wife is not amused), they kind of had me at blue, so the HTC’s Windows Phone 8X is my product of the week. Damn, this is one beautiful phone.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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