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Microsoft Is Trying to Become Apple

Monday - 7/15/2013, 2:50pm  ET

As Apple’s share price has dropped, some observers have compared the company to Microsoft . But perhaps that comparison is more aptly made in the other direction.

Microsoft announced a reorganization on Thursday, with the goal of becoming a “devices and services” company. That sounds remarkably similar to the strategy long embraced by Apple.

Despite Apple’s recent decline, the company is still larger and more profitable than Microsoft. So, will Microsoft’s reorganization allow the Windows-maker to replicate Apple’s success?

Microsoft’s reorganization

Under the new plan, Microsoft is getting a new management structure -- different business divisions are getting swapped around, split up and merged, and some executives are winning while others are losing. At the same time, it doesn't look like there’s an heir apparent to Steve Ballmer (at least for now).

But why?

Business Insider’s Jay Yarrow does a solid job answering that question. Specifically, Yarrow cites Ballmer’s letter to shareholders, which explains Ballmer’s vision for the future of Microsoft:

This means as we, with our partners, develop new Windows devices we'll build in services people want. Further, as we develop and update our consumer services, we'll do so in ways that take full advantage of hardware advances, that complement one another and that unify all the devices people use daily. So right out of the box, a customer will get a stunning device that is connected to unique communications, productivity and entertainment services from Microsoft as well as access to great services and applications from our partners and developers around the world.

Ballmer envisions a Microsoft that, like Apple, offers connected devices with built-in services. A company that still utilizes a variety of different hardware manufacturers, but a more cohesive experience overall.

Of course, Thursday wasn't the beginning -- this transition has been taking place for over a year. Case in point, Microsoft’s Surface tablet -- the first Windows-based device the company built in-house. There’s also Microsoft’s retail strategy, with stores remarkably similar to Apple’s.

Apple’s closed ecosystem

This shift is significant because Microsoft’s basic philosophy has always stood in stark contrast to Apple’s. From the early days of Apple and the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs pushed for a closed system -- a tightly controlled hardware/software package. In contrast, Microsoft has always advocated an open system.

Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson summarized the philosophical split in an interview with CBS:

[Steve Jobs and Bill Gates] talked about the great difference they had, which was, Steve Jobs believing that everything should be connected, end-to-end, integrated tightly. And Gates feeling that that was not a good business model -- you should license your software so different manufacturers can make things...When Gates told me the story, he said what I didn't tell Steve, is that it only works when you have a Steve Jobs...Jobs said [the Microsoft system] works only if you don't mind making crappy products.

The merits of closed vs open systems

Closed ecosystems benefit from a high degree of quality. Consumer Reports has long given Apple’s devices top marks. Macs are known to get fewer viruses, and tend to avoid issues like the “blue screen of death” -- the bane of every PC user out there.

By combining hardware closely with software, Apple is able to offer more polished devices -- Windows’ blue screen of death, for example, often originates from errant hardware configurations.

But that isn't to say that open systems don’t have their advantages. In fact, open systems have arguably been much more successful over time.

Take Windows itself. It rose to become the dominant PC operating system in the 1990s partially because Microsoft stuck to such an open platform philosophy. A dozen different manufacturers offered Windows-based PCs at every conceivable price point, leading to near monopoly control of the PC operating system market.

And while sticking to a closed system has allowed Apple to offer the superior user experience, it has wreaked havoc on the company’s market share. The average selling price of a PC is about $500 -- half the price of Apple’s cheapest laptop. Meanwhile, iOS has steadily seen a decline in market share because millions of consumers the world over can’t afford Apple’s expensive iPhones.

Google adopts Microsoft’s strategy

Google has adopted Microsoft’s classic strategy when it comes to the mobile market, and has seen similarly successful results. In just the last few years, Android has emerged as the world’s dominant mobile operating system -- it powers 75% of the planet’s smartphones.

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