Coinciding with the Vista launch, Apple had placed a well done campaign to disparage Windows and showcase the Mac. Bill Gates, uncharacteristically, reacted by calling Steve Jobs a liar. And while I couldn't help but think that it was about Microsoft standing up for itself, it was highly unusual for any company to leave such an attack unanswered for so long.
I can think of other companies in Silicon Valley, Oracle comes to mind, whose response to a similar barrage would have resulted in a massive legal response. Larry Ellison, Oracle's chief executive officer, who has absolutely no sense of humor in this department and were Jobs attacking his company, we'd have plenty of interesting news surrounding what likely would be a one-sided fight and Apple would likely be on the losing end.
But I wonder: Would a less demure Microsoft be better or worse? I believe that companies need to stand up for their employees and products. If they don't, they will bleed customers and good employees over time and risk their future to competitors.
This isn't a consensus opinion, Andrew Orlowski in his piece in the Register argues well on the risks of a dominant company taking shots at the little guy. I would typically agree with him, except Apple commands a great deal of mind share already and the company is dominant in a highly visible market that Microsoft has failed to penetrate - the portable media player segment.
Personally, I think it is part of a CEO's job to stand up for their company and protect its image and the integrity of its products and employees. That is something you can truly admire Oracle's CEO for, even though he scares me half to death. A friend of mine uses the phrase "they need to grow a pair" for companies who he thinks do not stand up for themselves, and I have to say, that seems to apply to Microsoft more than many of us realize.
Microsoft's employees, partners, and a surprising number of customers probably were elated by Bill's comments. Many probably wondered, as I do, why it was Microsoft's Chairman rather than its CEO that was taking a stand to protect his company, his employees, and his product. I am absolutely convinced that, in fact, it would help Microsoft's image a lot of they would actually do more of this.
So, is Bill Gates right and does Apple lie?
Read on the next page: Apple goes overboard
Mac vs. PC
Gates' comments were focused on Apple's Mac vs. PC ads so let's take a look at a few. I'm pulling these from the Apple "Get a Mac" site and you have to admit they are fun, though I do agree with Andrew that they appear to be more about Steve Jobs looking cool and making Bill Gates look dorky than they are about highlighting the differences between the products.
I also wonder if these are really selling the Mac as much as they are scaring folks away from Vista. These spots, while fun, don't really showcase the Mac much at all and seem to simply focus on contrived Windows shortcomings. Where is iLife, or iMovie, or Garageband, or FinalCut? There is a little bit of that in an occasional iLife mention, but mostly this campaign seems to be taking shots at Windows and if the Mac truly is better why would Apple have to lie, and why would they avoid any details on why the Mac is better?
"Surgery". It shows the PC guy in a hospital gown nervous about getting a hardware upgrade to run Vista. Based on past experience, 95% of the folks will buy new PCs to run Vista. You'll also have to buy a new system to run the MacOS and Apple's upcoming upgrade, Leopard, probably won't run on most pre-Intel boxes. The real choice is therefore between (1) Vista on a new PC and (2) OS X on a new PC (which may or may not have to be upgraded for Leopard) - and not between upgrading your existing PC and a new Mac (though upgrading your PC would probably be a bit cheaper).
Apple goes on to say you have to upgrade the processor for Vista and that is not true, because it either is not possible in old machines or not necessary in systems that are less than two years old. The implication that the PC peripherals will work on the Mac may not be true either; many PC peripherals lack Apple drivers (granted many aren't working with Vista now either). Vista's issues really circle around memory and not the processor.
"Security". This overstates an annoying "feature" in vista that is specifically designed to address targeted attacks using phishing techniques. Windows is attacked more often and, like many, I find this "feature" annoying. But it was toned down a lot after Vista RC2. Apple makes it appear to be more annoying than it actually is; but it is a fact that this feature simply can get on your nerves and Apple doesn't have it. On the other hand, Apple has little protection against phishing attacks where the user is tricked into installing something that could be a threat. Apple users simply aren't as much a target as Windows users, so while this over-emphasizes a problem it also points to an advantage that Apple in fact has.
"Tech Support": This is the one where an IT guy tapes a camera to the PC guys head. The irony of this one floored me. One of the first big desktop video conferencing tests done by AT&T (the old one) was at Apple over a decade ago. It failed because the employees thought their managers were watching them (there's not a lot of employee trust at Apple evidently) and because they didn't like people being able to see them when they weren't prepared to be seen.
After the cameras, which looked a lot like the one being taped to the PC guys head, were installed by Apple IT; Apple company caps were placed on top of them by the employees rendering them unusable. To my knowledge, the only IT shop to actually use cameras on this scale was Apple's and it failed miserably. In addition, Sony laptops have had cameras built into notebooks before Apple did. IBM had modular cameras in the 90s on their laptops, and many of HP and Dell's laptops have them today. Given Apple's own experience, they know that IT isn't putting cameras on employees computers (employees do that), they know that external cameras work just fine (because they made one of the best), and they know that PCs had built in cameras before Macs did.
"Sales Pitch": The implication here is that the Mac is selling so well that the PC must try harder with specials and incentives. While I think you can argue that HP is doing just fine, the rest of the market is suffering a bit and Apple's current numbers are very strong. Granted they are a fraction of the size of the top PC producers. But in terms of sales growth (and market valuation) Apple is kicking real butt. They even mention iLife, is though they don't really explain what iLife is. This is a good clean shot, though I wonder if it doesn't make the PC look like it might be a better bargain in the end. Aren't they really saying the PC may give you more for the money?
"Meant for Work": The implication here is that PCs are for work and Macs are for fun. Ok, I'm guessing the whole gamer thing got lost in that mix. Most games don't work on Macs because they are written for Windows. Go to any LAN party and try to find one Mac. You may find a Mac tower case with a PC inside, but if you are playing games, the PC is probably your platform. While Apple doesn't have an enterprise following, it is based on UNIX, does run Office for the Mac and, given its lack of gaming and third party software, it may be more exclusive for work like projects than the PC is. The sheer mass of software makes the PC more balanced for work and entertainment and covers both areas more completely. The Mac has advantages, but without a strong gaming base it lacks the "fun" focus of the PC. Is it true that a Mac isn't for business or a PC isn't fun?
"Counselor": This positions the PC, once again, as more work and goes on to position the Mac as more attractive and more creative. It is not clear, if this is a shot at the PC or Steve is taking a direct shot at Bill. Apple products are more consistently used for creative projects. But due simply to the massive market share disparity, there are more PCs doing creative work then there are Macs and we aren't even including Windows-based workstations. This seems to be more of a personal dig, particularly when you look at the PC's anti-social behavior. This probably does reflect Steve's view of the world. But this is one you need to watch a few times, because the message about Apple in this is both subtle and troubling.
If this really was marriage counseling, the PC is behaving like the person betrayed or wronged, while the Mac is in power and effectively manipulating the counselor. There is a lot more about Steve's personality in this than I think was intended. For instance, if this is marriage counseling, what would you think the story is behind the behavior? Doesn't it look like the PC guy really doesn't trust the Mac guy? Probably for good reason...
Gates has a point. I'm struck by the fact that the entire campaign seems to work harder to disparage Windows than it does to sell the Mac. I wonder why, if you truly believe your products are better, you need to make up stuff about your competitor. You would think you could focus on true benefits like ease of use and targeted applications like iLife. I also wonder that, if you ever want to get businesses back as a customer whether it is wise to position yourself as anti-business.
During a launch like Vista's, Windows is at its weakest and breakage will be high, compatibility low, and folks will be thinking about new PCs. But Apple will be in a similar situation in a few months and while Microsoft typically wouldn't target them, an upset Bill Gates might and move away from their current milk toast brand campaign. Instead, we could see a campaign that directly targets the Mac and points out that Vista can not only do everything the Mac does but can do many things the Mac, can't - such as gaming and core IT business applications.
We'll see how upset Bill really is, but you have to admit Microsoft hasn't really been fighting particularly hard at this point. If Apple's ads change that behavior, it might be great for companies like Dell, HP, Gateway and Lenovo (not to mention Microsoft's own stock price), but it probably wouldn't be that great for Apple. Sometimes it might be better to actually leave sleeping dogs alone.