Two closely timed events—today's release of Mac OS X Leopard and yesterday's big Microsoft earnings report—raise questions yet again about how Microsoft and Apple are perceived.
Apple it seems can do no wrong, while Microsoft can do no right. If someone passes gas in the room, someone blames Microsoft. Yet Apple can "brick" iPhones for which customers paid $400 to $600 and sales just soar.
Microsoft reports solid earnings quarter after quarter—and yesterday beat earnings estimates by more than $1 billion. Yet Microsoft's stock price is stuck at 2001 levels. Apple earnings results are good, but nowhere near what Microsoft delivers. Yet Apple's stock just climbs and climbs—this morning to more than $185 a share, up from about 77 bucks 52 weeks earlier.
A decade ago, things were different. Following the release of Windows 95, Microsoft could do no wrong. The company got huge preferential press treatment. I recall the week that Corel released the first new version of WordPerfect Suite since the acquisition from Novell. Microsoft talked up the unreleased Office 97, which got the majority of the press coverage.
By contrast, Apple was perceived as gasping for air, as being an also-ran. During the Gartner Symposium in October 1997, Dell CEO Michael Dell said how he would solve the Apple problem: "What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." A decade later, Apple's market capitalization is about two-and-a-half times Dell's.
Apple's success is one of perception, spurred on by some very smart marketing and branding decisions made over the past six years. Apple is a cool brand that people want to be associated with. When people really like something, they also tend to be more forgiving of faults.
By contrast, Microsoft has huge perceptions problems, many of its own making. For years, Microsoft rushed OK products to market, leading to a popular (and usually right) perception that the company wouldn't get it right until the third release. Marketing 101: The products are the company, and its image. I hear people complain about buggy, crashy Windows, years after Microsoft released the very stable and reliable XP and, later, its Service Pack 2 update; the days of perennial crashes are long gone, but not forgotten.
Microsoft's past behavior has created some perception that its products aren't good enough, that the company doesn't care for customers. Windows Vista is a poster product for Microsoft's perception problems: It's got an undeserved bad reputation.
Perhaps a good analogy for comparing perceptions about Apple and Microsoft is to look at Beatles leaders John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Lennon could do no wrong, even when he really did no right (other than the Beatles being greater than Jesus fiasco). Lennon had a reputation for being a man of the people, a champion of peace and love.
But what did he really do? Lennon's idea of peace: sleep-ins and singing a song about peace for which he made millions. Lennon later lived in a posh apartment off Central Park, far removed "the people." By contrast, the more conservative (an arguably more boring) McCartney did more and toured more. His song, "Hey Jude," was written for Lennon's son Julian, who was essentially ostracized from his father after the Yoko Ono affair. Lennon was perceived to be the better Beatle, but McCartney showed more character, and he is the better songwriter.
Perception often isn't reality.
This week, a number of tech journalists gave glowing reviews of Leopard. They received the software on Mac Book Pro laptops provided by Apple. Nowhere have I seen anyone gripe about conflicts of interest. But when Microsoft's PR agency sent bloggers preloaded Vista notebooks ahead of the operating system's launch, there were ridiculous accusations of attempted bribery. The accusations made it difficult for those receiving the Vista units to say anything positive about the operating system.
Yesterday, I casually spoke (nothing through official channels) with a developer from PlantCML, which provided the reverse-911 system used to warn people in San Diego County to evacuate; wildfires ravaged the county this week. He praised Microsoft, which provided technicians throughout the weekend as PlantCML prepared for impending trouble. It's that kind of behind-the-scene support and service to partners for which Microsoft delivers but doesn't get enough credit.
Contrast Microsoft to Apple, which has a reputation for secrecy and being partner unfriendly. Apple's nearly 200 retail stores compete with loyal dealers and resellers. For years I've heard developers complain about Apple information disclosure; iPhone is the most recent example. Apple's move to Intel processors forced its two largest development partners, Adobe and Microsoft, to switch development tools and do massive recoding to port software.
Apple is perceived to be a progressive company. But it has a spotty record for green computing—even though one of its board members just won a Nobel prize for environmental work. Its record of giving is OK, but not exceptional. Apple has few programs (actually none that I know of) for helping people in emerging markets. Oh, but it's cool, though, and has style.
By contrast, Microsoft's focus for years has been the conversion to digital documents, which is hugely environmentally friendly. The company's chairman is trustee for a charitable organization with billions of dollars to give away. Microsoft's Unlimited Potential program seeks to use technology to empower people in emerging markets.
There's perception, and there's reality.
No question, Microsoft makes lots of boneheaded decisions, for which it is rightly vilified. But the company also deserves more praise than it gets. Meanwhile, strong brand perceptions—and their feel good association—lets Apple off even when it screws up.
Today will be no exception. The blogosphere will praise Leopard as the next best thing ever and use it as more proof why Vista sucks (It doesn't). Meanwhile, there will be little good said about Microsoft's colossal 2008 fiscal first quarter results. Those people acknowledging the earnings results will blame Microsoft for trying to kill Linux and babies in Africa as reasons for its success. The perception: When Microsoft competes, it cheats.
There is a double standard.