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Apple vs. Google: Lessons from Bill Gates’ playbook

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“There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth.” —Robert Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture”

I’ve been ruminating on how Apple and Google could have come up with such divergent takeaways from studying the incredible, terrifyingly dominant run of Microsoft under Bill Gates.

For those too young to remember, Microsoft had a run like no other. Through a combination of strategic brilliance, relentless focus and sheer determination, Microsoft leveraged its initial DOS beachhead into a PC industry-crushing market share and massive profits vis-a-vis Windows, Office, Internet Explorer and BackOffice, a position cemented by a unified foundation of developer tools and legions of dedicated Microsoft developers.

When Microsoft set its sights on a market, it would squeeze the life out of the market leader like an anconda wrapping itself around its prey. Before it was done, the company struck numerous segments, including personal computing (Apple and IBM), word processing (WordPerfect), spreadsheets (Lotus), databases (Borland and Sybase), networking (Novell) and Internet browsers (Netscape).

It’s not hyperbole to say that Apple’s phoenix-like rise and Google’s ascent are directly and positively correlated with Gates’ decision to step away from running his company as CEO in 2000.

Two different takes on the truth

Apple and Google may have fundamentally different strategies, but I believe that both companies have derived their own truths from seven core attributes from Microsoft’s playbook:

1. Integrated strategy: One reason that Microsoft was able to dominate in segment after segment is that every Microsoft product leveraged its sibling by harnessing common APIs, developer tools and linked functions. Hence, when Microsoft eyed a market that was dominated by one of its competitors, it simply could embrace the competitor’s strategy (i.e., emulate their offering) and then extend it (by augmenting the approach with proprietary APIs that harnessed deep ties within Microsoft products). And soon, the competitor was extinguished. In this light, one can see parallels between how deeply Apple has integrated iTunes, iOS and iCloud across all of its offerings, and contrast this with the loosely-coupled approach that Google has taken.

2. Platform homogeneity: Another reason that Microsoft became so dominant is that the very concept of a PC came to mean Windows, Office, Office Docs and Microsoft Foundation Classes, irrespective of whether the hardware was made by Dell, HP or Toshiba. One can contrast this approach with the similar mindset of Apple with iPhone, iPad and the iOS SDK, and the highly fragmented environment that defines the Android universe. Case in point, very few Android devices run the latest version of the OS, whereas within days of Apple’s release of iOS 5.1, over half the market had upgraded.

3. Developers: In a way that Apple never got prior to the second coming of Steve Jobs, Microsoft always saw developers as core to their success. The company worked tirelessly to ensure that developers had: A) The tools that they needed to succeed; B) Economics that warranted a singular embrace of all things Microsoft; and C) The marketing programs and sales channels required to successfully penetrate all levels of the market. Here, one can see how fully Apple has embraced the importance of developers, while Google has made the very definition of the Android platform subject to numerous caveats, much to the dismay of software developers.

The hard truth here may simply be that for all of its celebration of the engineer-driven culture, the sheer amount of face time and handholding required in a successful platform play is beyond the ken of Google, where “good enough,” “free” and “automated” have historically been the catchall approach.

4. Waste transistors: Former Intel CEO, Andy Grove once quipped that as quickly as Intel found new ways to add transistors to its processors, Bill Gates found a way to consume them. This gets to a very fundamental tenet of Microsoft’s success — namely, price-performance was always moving up and to the right. One can see how Apple has embraced this ethos in pushing the envelope in interaction richness, application and graphical processing power and core hardware functions. Conversely, Android — despite a similar view of the world at Google — remains throttled by hardware API limitations and platform fragmentation realities. This is a by-product of Google letting hardware manufacturers and carriers customize Android to fit their business goals as opposed to enforcing compatibility standards from the get-go.

5. Commoditization: Much of Microsoft’s power derived from an inevitability that they established in the market. Anything that they cast their eyes upon would become a commodity, a ubiquitous set of functions that would essentially become free….so long as you bought into the Microsoft bundle.

While Apple has focused on creating and maintaining proprietary differentiation and the high-margin pricing and customer loyalty that it affords, Google has fully embraced commoditization to try and disrupt its competitors’ business models. Apple’s strategy has worked incredibly well for them, owing to the halo effect that they have created for themselves (i.e., entire families become Apple households, standardizing on Macs, iPods, iPhones and iPads). By contrast, I’d argue that Google has miscalculated how long it’s going to take for post-PC devices to reach a commoditized state, and the layers of functionality that they will have to seamlessly integrate and iterate to become a viable alternative in the cloud era. If anything, Amazon is better positioned as the Un-Android Android.

6. Love all segments: When companies embrace commoditization, they tend to see all markets as readily within their grasp and think that they merely need to show up to win. Following this tendency, Microsoft rarely met a product category that it didn’t like, and Google is now similarly aligned. By contrast, Apple exercises restraint in picking a few market segments to focus on, and then goes all in to deliver what it considers insanely great products that have no equal.

7. For the win: Someone once compared Microsoft to a football dynasty who week after week would so thoroughly blow out the competition that it was embarrassing to all parties involved. Microsoft just couldn’t resist running up the score. This company culture was partly a by-product of their resilience in seeing products through multiple generations until market success was assured. But an equally big part of this was due to Bill Gates’ aggressive nature. In this regard, there are strong similarities between Gates’ Microsoft and the culture that Steve Jobs built. In comparison, Google has a more collegial style. Small projects are encouraged there, and failure is seen as part of the larger goal of “letting a thousand flowers bloom.”

So what’s your take? Is Microsoft the right analog for viewing the post PC market battles? Are there other core truths that one must factor into the equation?

Mark Sigal is an eight-time entrepreneur, whose ventures have sold to Apple, IBM and Intel. He is chief product officer at Unicorn Labs, an eBooks and eLearning platform provider.

43 Responses to “Apple vs. Google: Lessons from Bill Gates’ playbook”

  1. Like Windows, Android can run on manufacture created hardware. This is the same path that Microsoft took which made PCs so much cheaper and made them accessible to a wider audience. Google is doing the same thing here, create the OS and let device manufactures create the feature set. Will it work like it did for Microsoft? Who knows.

  2. Billy Ray

    yes it is “hyperbole” – and it’s ridiculous.

    As incorrect as points 1,2 and 4 are, the silliest comment I found was:

    “But an equally big part of this was due to Bill Gates’ aggressive nature. In this regard, there are strong similarities between Gates’ Microsoft and the culture that Steve Jobs built.”

    Are you implying that Steve Jobs returned to Apple and emulated Bill Gates? Steve Jobs was not aggressive the first time around?

    • netgarden

      @Billy Ray, the fact of the matter is that Microsoft was killing EVERYBODY at the point that Bill Gates stepped away from day-to-day so that’s hardly a random event when we know what proceeded it and what happened after he stepped away.

      As to the reference about Gates’ aggressive nature, the point in that section is NOT that Jobs was influenced by Gates, but rather, that the aggressive pursuit of seeing markets through to the win is SIMILAR with both Gates and Jobs, whereas Google is more collegial.

  3. Brian Kelley

    I’m not really diggin the parallel.

    Take #2 for example, you begin by saying how Microsoft became synonymous with PC as it didn’t matter who made it. Which is exactly what Android has done, not Apple / iOS / iphone.

    An iPhone is an iPhone, there are no other makes or models that run iOS, where as I don’t call an htc phone an iphone, but one may call it an android phone.

  4. While, I can somewhat see what the author is trying to correlate in the article, I have a hard time believing that Apple and Google have copied much at all from Microsoft besides maybe just they have all 3 been successful, although Microsoft’s hey day is long past. One point that was probably not made in this article because Apple and Google have not been able to emulate this in anyway, is sales and licensing strategy. Microsoft got in with Corporate IT departments back around Windows 95 days, and has been sitting pretty ever since. While, many consumers have switched Corporate IT groups are in way too deep to ever consider switching platforms.

  5. Great Article! Thank you for sharing…
    I’ve always been a fan of all three of these companies, Microsoft in particular.
    I’d be interested on how Microsoft, Google and Apple play in the third world space. We all know they do quite well in wealthy technologically-rich places but what about those that are still building most of their infrastructure.
    Apple: Does the model of high-margins and customer loyalty work nearly as well?
    Micrsoft: Probably has the largest growth opportunity with it’s high dependence and enablement of developers. Has Microsoft used a large market of lower-wage developers to the fullest?
    Google: Will China force it’s way by standardizing on their own search giant and in turn affect most of Asia?

  6. i think,
    Google took the “IBM” approach to “PC” platform, and elaborated on it with Open-Handset-Alliance.
    And, Apple(for mobile) took the “Windows” approach, and elaborated on it with App-store.

  7. Who cares about who stole what or even who incorporated a technology into the hardware first. Heck who cares if everything leverages off of itself when you HAVE STOPPED LISTENING TO WHAT THE END USERS WANT!!

  8. Yuvamani

    Sorry but this article is fanboy tripe. Expected a little better from Gigaom .. Anyway here is why some of your analysis is wrong.

    3. Developers:
    Guess which OS makes developers cringe by making each app go through an arcane approval process where an app can be *rejected* just because of the mood of the Approver ? Or which OS makes it hard to push updates ? Developers *love* apples promotions, but hate the approvals and the restrictions.

    4. Waste transistors:
    Guess which os the first dual core, quad core or LTE devices ran on ? Hint : Its not ios or Windows Phone or Blackberry os … And interestingly Android made a heavy tradeoff in favor of developers using Moores law. Whereas Apple forced developers to use old Objective C with no memory management. Android gave developers a friendlier language with modern features betting that moores law will help them in the long term (and it did)

    5) Commoditization: Google just created (and hence controls) a runtime and API which works across the widest variety of devices. Do you think they do not get commoditization ? Amazon on the other hand has one successful device which leverages the same runtime / API. The fact that RIM/Blackberry accepting Android apps should show how well Android has commoditized the app runtime. The irony of Google rival facebook accepting the Android runtime in their on again / off again attempts to develop a facebook phone shows how much power Google has in the mobile world.

    Dont get me wrong, what Apple is doing and done is awesome. How it has done that is a very un-microsoft way of concentrating on the user first and user experience foremost. But in doing that it has sometimes trampled over developers.

    What Google is done is also awesome. It has embraced Microsoft killing open source in order to push an OS which may have totally killed Microsoft in the post-pc era. This approach gives developers and manufacturers freedom to go after every segment and every niche and exploit the power of mobile in a way they could never exploit the power of Windows.

    Both these companies have embraced a very un-microsoft strategy to kill Microsoft.

    I would like if this post was more informed and factually accurate.

  9. Amirhossein

    I think one of the main reasons Microsoft creates momentum in technologies they embrace is because of their partner centric strategy. They split their revenue with lots of companies around the world.

  10. Waste of time to analyze who has borrowed what from whom for one reason – you never know 100%, who borrowed from whom and what.
    We all “borrow” good practices from each other, combine them and derive our own way.
    Above list is the result of 3 decades of evolution and experience of the whole Silicon Valley.
    You will never prove that Bill Gates first adopted above practices, and they had never been existed before him.
    But even with hard proofs this discussion is worthless, since it doesn’t change anything.
    It’s just means, Google and Apple are two different kinds of businesses (ads vs. devices), who play there own strategies on one market. Which is obvious.

  11. netgarden

    @Clyde, what’s the point that I missed? Best experience doesn’t always win. It’s a combination of factors, and the fact that there was “no other choice” was a testament to the market position that Microsoft created.

    @immovableobject, to your point, one of the variables that probably hastened Gates’ desire not to be CEO any more was the prolonged anti-trust battle with the DOJ on the very same items you reference.

    @West, touché. ;-) To @Karl M’s point, for as far removed as MS is from creating a true game-changing hit (a decade??), they STILL are able to squeeze massive profits at what’s arguably a legacy business at this point.

  12. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at all the responses that are essentially “ZOMG. M$ sux. Blah blah.”

    For all you MS haters out there, feel free to hate, but you cannot deny the facts. MS has been a hugely successful company — a lot of that is based on their success in enterprise environments, which most consumers (and commenters) don’t seem to understand.

    Great article, BTW.

  13. josha0007

    The thing that the people below haven’t realised is that people take ideas and make them better. The term Post “PC” is something that i saw in another comment below and the honest truth is that society are becoming post PC. Sure we all still have Laptops but out society has moved on. Which in turn has placed a major threat to Microsoft. Their diversified portfolio will see them always be a threat, but if they want to play in the mobile space as a major player. The need to reinvent their product as being cool. Because right now. All the cool kids are using Apple products.

  14. Fabulous analysis. You can write a book on this.

    I think a lot of kids under 30 will disagree because they don’t remember what Microsoft was back then. Microsoft was “it”for a long time there simply was no comparison.

    • Roger Grobler

      My 10 year old came up to me the other day all excited: “Did you know, that Bill Gates was into computers long ago!”

      How complete is that in terms of rebranding your own personal reputation. Good for him.

  15. immovableobject

    “Through a combination of strategic brilliance, relentless focus and sheer determination…”

    In itemizing Microsoft’s characteristics leading to its industry domination, you forgot to include: ruthless, unethical, and illegal schemes and manipulations. These are not things that companies should emulate.

    • Shervin Talieh

      In fact, all of their products were late, buggy, and they threatened the hardware manufacturers (routinely). They stymied innovation. Remember Netscape? Remember how they wouldn’t let PC makers bundle other software solutions into the bootup? MS kills innovation.

      • At any time you could have purchased a Mac or installed any version of nix for personal use but for business yes we had no choice. Microsoft has improved its products greatly in the last few years but I don’t know if it will be enough, it feels like Mac is on the rise these days. Maybe Windows 8 will be a game changer for them?

  16. netgarden

    @Synth, great adds, and totally agree. FWIW, some time back, I wrote a piece called ‘Five reasons iPhone vs Android isn’t Mac vs Windows’
    ( on this very topic.

    @Dhawal, RIM doesn’t get dibs on the term playbook until they have a successful product. ;-)

    @The Gnome, I think that you are missing the point. I am not talking about the Microsoft of the present. I am talking about Microsoft, PC-era with Bill Gates at the helm, and I am talking strategy and tactics.

  17. Interesting analysis but you do know that Gates borrowed Windows from Apple OS back in 80s and if Jobs wouldn’t left Apple at first place then things would be very different specially for MS. You are giving way too much credit to MS.

    • Actually, the correct version of history: “MS created a product called Windows, that borrowed a lot of the GUI concepts from Apple, which actually borrowed a lot of the GUI concepts from Xerox.”

      The reality of the software business (and tech business in general) is that concepts and ideas pop up all over the place and are copied time and time again. The successful companies are the ones that know how to execute those concepts and ideas (where execution may be viewed from a development standpoint or from a business standpoint). Both Apple and Microsoft have been successful at this.

      • This may come to and end since Apple is attempting to sue Google for the slide lock feature which was used by another company before Apple had it. Although the case goes much deeper then just the slide lock.

    • animatio

      actually steve jobs & and the scond steve did steel the whole gui paradigm from xerox (there is enough prove for this). the windows concept is quite a different paradigm (and still is) and derives from the early concepts of unix x-windows and graphical guis for dos systems. one reason why a great parrt of macie’s to the day have difficulties to handle windows to say the least

      • Dan Howard

        Apple didn’t steal anything from Xerox. Xerox gave them access to the tech in exchange for Apple stock. Learn reality before posting nonsense.

      • Steve K

        Apply patented the single click mouse, so Windows had to work around it. So “macies” have to make an awkward shift to a compromised interface when on a windows computer. The various UNIX and DOS windows systems were early attempts to copy the Lisa GUI without treading on Apple’s patents.

      • pk22901

        Your right about Apple, but they licensed from Xerox, not ‘stole’.

        Also right about Microsoft, but they ‘ripped it off’ from Apple, not ‘derived’.

  18. The Gnome

    Good God, the LAST thing either of these two companies are doing on their road to success is taking any cues from Microsoft. You want a quick road to irrelevance? Copy Microsoft… in any way shape or form.

    Give Google and Apple a little more credit please.

    P.S. Microsoft geeks are now the mainframe geeks of the new century. Keep riding the bloat train and hope you last until retirement.

    • Shervin Talieh

      Completely agree. Open Source, API’s and cloud-computing weren’t around when MS was threatening and hijacking their way to growth (there is a very litigious, dark-side to MS, and they don’t pull punches). Open systems always win out, over the long run. My money is on Google, and others. Even Apple is threatened by Google and FB, in spite of all their success.

  19. I would add a few more things Apple learned in the 80s & 90s:

    8. Own the supply chain–Apple was infamous back then for either having too much crap in warehouses that no one wanted or being months backordered in devices that people did want. Probably the most important thing that Tim Cook fixed when he came to Apple.
    9. Own the distribution network–Apple finally realized it couldn’t depend on Circuit City, Best Buy, CompUSA, or anyone else to show off its products in their best light. It absolutely had to take control of the retail experience.
    10. Finally, the most important lesson Apple learned was: Do not, under any circumstances, let any one else have control over any part of your ecosystem that is strategic to your products. Back in the 90s Apple was almost completely at the mercy of Microsoft (Office-Explorer) and Adobe (Photoshop/Premiere) and a crappy retail network of CircuitCity, Sears and CompUSA. But now….That is why there is no Flash on iOS devices. This is why Apple developed or bought Safari, Final Cut, iWork, iLife, Apple retail, Aperture, Logic, iTunes, etc.