Years ago when I got my first Mac, Apple was a marginal company, and some didn’t expect it to survive. Then things got worse, as its ill-fated flirtation with cloning backfired and the company introduced several less than successful products. Still, I was working in a Mac shop, and I wasn’t about to demand that the rest of the department learn a new platform because I was quasi-adept at Edline.
Today, Apple is a larger company than Microsoft, as measured by market capitalization (about $222B to $219B), and dominates several markets in which they both compete. Microsoft makes a number of products, including Windows, Explorer, and Office that are practically ubiquitous. And it’s debatable whether market cap is a meaningful measure of importance. Wayne Rash examines this very issue in an interesting blog post on CTO Edge.
Yet what to make of the rumor that Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer will appear on-stage during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco in two weeks? The rumor circulated pretty widely until the original source, Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdry, denied it. Barron’s quoted Chowdry as saying, “He (Chowdry) nonetheless says his contacts ‘insist that both MSFT and AAPL are working on development tools--probably our timing is off.’ ”
Whether Ballmer appears at WWDC or not, the two companies have a new relationship, with Apple no longer always the junior partner. Microsoft, once so dominant that it was the target of anti-trust suits, has had its considerable edge in many markets eroded by a number of companies, including Google. Apple has assumed a leadership role in smart phones, MP3s, and tablets and begun to edge into other markets, such as Internet advertising, where Microsoft has struggled. Microsoft’s dependence on the desktop computer may also make it vulnerable to cloud computing and other technology changes that threaten its core business model.
I believe that the seismic shifts in technology have driven the changes in market caps. Microsoft’s cash cow products may have handicapped its efforts to move decisively into growing new markets or even to recognize that early MP3 players and smart phones would soon morph into tiny portable computers. Apple had nothing to lose and could capitalize on the creative destruction that technology would bring. Google, too, had little to fear from seeing the nation move its computing activity from the desktop to the telephone and so went ahead and created an operating system that powers a well-regarded line of phones as part of a business model that competes directly with Apple’s iPhone platform.
In the end, though, finally the technology industry is bringing real choice to the market. Windows 7 has earned positive reviews. Apple continues to introduce new models that have expanded its niche in this market. The number of landline users continues to drop, in large part because cell phones based on the Google and Apple operating systems continue to make landlines antiquated. And these phones compete with low-cost Netbooks, iPads, and full-featured laptops to be the unit of choice for the road warrior. This plethora of devices and choices really empower users to determine how they will work and entertain themselves, meaning that creative destruction has benefited the public. In the workplace, the rise and acceptance of these new technologies means employees-and not IT and accounting departments-will increasingly have the upper hand in deploying new technology.
The successful companies of the next decade will capitalize on the opportunities presented by creative destruction, and today’s market caps will only be an interesting footnote in a never-ending race.