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Can Microsoft Take Back Momentum From Google and Apple?

Microsoft is holding its Build event this week, marking the beginning of its major push to launch Windows 10. Build is in San Francisco this year, which effectively puts it right in the back yard of both Apple and Google -- a nice "in your face" move. I was the featured launch analyst for Windows 95 two decades ago and there, Microsoft ripped Apple a new rear orifice.

Microsoft is holding its Build event this week, marking the beginning of its major push to launch Windows 10. Build is in San Francisco this year, which effectively puts it right in the back yard of both Apple and Google — a nice “in your face” move. I was the featured launch analyst for Windows 95 two decades ago and there, even though the post launch was hardly flawless, Microsoft ripped Apple a new rear orifice, wounding the company so badly that one of the founders eventually had to return to save it.

Apple is far stronger this time but that founder is gone, and after a decade of “meh,” Microsoft looks more like its old 1995 self than it has in years. Also, and somewhat ironically, Google is under antitrust death watch, and it has implemented its strongest “put Apple out of the phone business” strategy yet. If nothing else, this will make the next few months look a bit like Game of Thrones in the tech space.

I’ll share some observations about that and close with the new Dell XPS 13 — a product, when coupled with Windows 10, that could give the new MacBook a run for the money. I should point out, now that I’ve seen and played with the new MacBook, that it’s better than I thought it would be.

Windows 8 Sucked

Microsoft over the last decade got into some kind of a strange ping pong match with itself. Windows ME defined the word “sucked,” but then Windows XP was pretty good. Windows Vista was a nightmare that didn’t seem to want to end — until it got fully patched, and then it was actually OK. Windows 7 was good, but that was because it basically embraced all of the fixes that already had been made to Vista.

Then came Windows , which showcases what can happen if you try to fix a problem with the wrong tools and without the support of the company. It became a metaphor for Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft — nicely executed in terms of performance and security, but a sick mess of a product when it came to embracing what users wanted and thought they needed.

Like Windows Vista, once Windows 8 was patched, it was — and is — actually rather good. However, also like Vista, once folks got a bad impression of the product, they didn’t seem to want to change their minds.

Ballmer’s Microsoft Sucked Too

Ballmer’s era showcases what happens when you put someone in charge of a company who doesn’t have passion for product. Steve certainly loved Microsoft, and he got the enterprise, but he didn’t have passion for product. I think he knew he really wasn’t qualified to run the company, and that made him very defensive. That defensive attitude often had him doing stupid stuff in public.

The throwing the chair thing comes to mind, but he went to war with Intel. Also during his reign, Google cherry-picked Microsoft’s OEMs, and even though Ballmer is famous for his “developers, developers, developers” talk, which focused on their importance during his tenure, Microsoft bled developers like water.

Nadella’s Microsoft Doesn’t Suck

One thing is clear: Nadella is a very different CEO. He does have passion for product, he has patched up the relationship with Intel, and the OEMs actually seem to like Microsoft better than they like Google now. (To be fair this actually started happening while Steve was still running Microsoft).

Nadella seems able to speak to developers, and he showcases why technology companies really need to be run by people who are experts in the technology and love the product. Interestingly, this is the same kind of change we are seeing at Intel at the moment. Microsoft is night-and-day different from what it was a few short months ago, and that means it can take the fight to Apple.

Google’s Help

What will help is that Google and Apple are clearly at war, and Google’s Project Fi is only the latest addition to what has become an impressive body of work from that company.

Apple is a high-margin company, which means if it comes down to competing on price, Apple is screwed. The market right now is defined more by customer experience, and Apple arguably is king of that domain. It doesn’t own a carrier, though, and where the Apple experience often breaks is with the connection.

As high as Apple is on satisfaction, companies like AT&T are low. That showcases Apple’s second vulnerability — one that Google is attacking with Project Fi, which is a high-quality, low-cost, customer-focused cellular service.

The low-cost part means that Apple can’t easily counter without hurting margins, but it could jump on the antitrust bandwagon and argue that Google has been using predatory pricing (something I’m kind of surprised hasn’t happened more often before now). That should put Apple and Google at each other’s throats during the Windows 10 launch window, giving Microsoft an opportunity to swipe the market.

Granted, it still would have to execute flawlessly.

The State of Windows 10

I’ve been running the various beta builds of Windows 10 and, candidly, it is very strong on PCs, as you would expect. It should easily hold off Chrome and give OS X a stronger alternative.

On tablets, it is still hampered by a lack of apps, but if it just had a better version of the Kindle Reader, I think many users would prefer it over an Android tablet in general and over an iPad for business (where Surface already does reasonably well). However, the general iPad user is still out of reach.

On smartphones — unless Apple and Google do something impossibly stupid, which is very unlikely — Microsoft is outmatched right now, and I don’t see any reasonable way it can close this gap. It is simply too far behind.

I do see one potential interesting play: entering a tight partnership with Intel again and making a collective run at this market. That would require a lot of resources, but the Intel stuff has become competitive of late.

The companies would need to come up with a product that was both very different and incredibly compelling — kind of like the first iPhone was — with massive funding. An iPhone clone wouldn’t do it. It would have to be something creative enough to render the Google’s and Apple’s app advantage moot.

I think the parts exist in the market to create an iPhone killer. Google is showcasing one path with Project Fi and Nexus. The question is this: Does Microsoft — and maybe Intel — have the creative chops to create such an offering with one of its more creative OEMs? If it pulls off something like this, it would be a huge unanticipated surprise.

Wrapping Up: Build

So, as we go into Build this week, Microsoft as a company is as ready as it has ever been, and it is set to make a strong run on PCs, mostly targeting folks currently using older machines, and a good run on tablets — particularly those focused on business markets — which would be better with some better Amazon support.

However, If Microsoft is going to make a surprise move, it needs to be with smartphones. Even with Apple and Google pounding on each other, Microsoft will need something like divine intervention to close the gap. Hmm, I wonder if BK, Intel’s CEO, has some secret godly powers that he hasn’t told anyone about. I guess we’ll see later in the week.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

The XPS line is the line Dell positions against the MacBook — kind of like how Cadillac is positioned against Audi. Having recently played with the new Apple MacBook, I found it to be a far more impressive product than I thought it was. It has three shortcomings: performance, which actually isn’t that bad; keyboard, which I could get used to; and the lack of ports, which likely would drive me crazy, mostly because I often charge my phone on my laptop while it is charging (not a fan of dongles).

Offsetting those quibbles, the MacBook is paper light. Comparing these two products and determining which you’d prefer likely has much more to do with you than with the products themselves. The MacBook leads on weight and runs OS X, so for an Apple user who wants to work on something as portable as an iPad, it is perfect.

The XPS 13 configuration that best matches the new MacBook leads on screen resolution (at the high end) and battery. It runs Windows, so for the Windows user who wants something light and sexy with all-day battery life (kind of fits me personally) this is the product for you. (The weight difference is half a pound but feels like more).

Dell XPS 13

Dell XPS 13

Specs for the high end XPS 13 include up to 11 hours of battery life (15 with the lower-resolution standard display); a 3200×1800 13-inch touch display option (it is worth the extra cost); a 128-GB SSD; a Core i5 processor; full ports; and an SDXC card reader. It has an optional booster battery and a backpack that integrates it, which is a handy accessory.

The list price with this configuration should be identical to the new MacBook, or $1,299. Be aware, you can get one of these for as little as $899 with an i3, a lower-resolution screen and less memory. It is worth looking at the choices.

In the end, I think the new MacBook comes about as close as you can get to the ideal laptop for most Apple fans and the new XPS 13 does the same for Windows folks (particularly when it gets Windows 10, which is what I’m running on mine).

I think these products showcase the differences between the two user groups. Apple users are more into design (with an emphasis on thinness and weight), and Windows users are more focused on utility. Both would like a product they can be proud of. The new Dell XPS is the best laptop I’ve ever tested, and it is my product of the week.

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. You can connect with him on Google+.

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