Everything old is new again in technology. Apple arguably created the PC market with easy-to-use interfaces that made Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system look unnecessarily difficult. But everybody knows that it was only a matter of time before Microsoft out-maneuvered almost everybody and became the dominant force in PCs, nearly crushing Apple in the process.
Then about a decade ago it all started to change again. Leveraging the success of the iPod, Apple ultimately introduced the iPhone and iPad and in so doing significantly shifted the market once again, and left some asking if there was any need for a PC anymore. This put Microsoft in the unfamiliar position of being not only back on its heels, but perhaps not even relevant anymore - the bully from Redmond was seeing its once captive customers migrating to platforms where Windows not only didn't dominate, but could barely compete.
With the recently announced release of the Microsoft Surface tablet, it is worth asking whether or not Microsoft is riding Apple's coattails, or whether this is a case of the empire striking back and showing that it can adapt to what the market has clearly said it wants.
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The Surface Tablet - Best of Both, or Muddled Mess in the Making?
While it was not at all uncommon in the mainframe days that proceeded the PC age, Apple established itself as the only player that wanted to control both the hardware and software in a seamless, integrated package. Microsoft would license MS-DOS (and later, Windows) to anybody who wanted it, but Apple wouldn't.
Though it often seemed stubborn and a market-limiting move, Apple always argued that keeping hardware and software together delivered the best performance to its customers, and legions of die-hard Mac loyalists would likely agree. Now Microsoft's own CEO is out saying "Things work better when hardware and software are considered together. We control it all, we design it all, and we manufacture it all ourselves."
It looks as though Microsoft is copying Apple's own playbook by launching its own tablet, the Surface. Although some may dismiss this as just a marketing move to highlight the features and capabilities of Windows 8 for mobile devices (and coax hardware companies like Samsung to use it), it may in fact turn out to be something more.
Microsoft appears to be positioning this as a hybrid of the PC and touch-based tablet. Not only does it offer a keyboard, but Microsoft boasts that it offers much more functionality when it comes to apps like spreadsheets - perhaps answering those who ask "but what can you actually DO with a tablet?" If it all works as advertised, this could be the heavy-duty tablet that makes the iPad look more like a toy; if it doesn't work, it's going to be a jumbled mess that never works right and further proof that Microsoft doesn't, and can't, "get it."
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Coattails or Rational Competition?
With Microsoft and Google now both developing and launching their own branded tablets, there are plenty of articles out there claiming that Microsoft is out of ideas and simply trying to ride Apple's coattails and avoid a downward spiral into irrelevance. Perhaps that is so, but consider the matter from a different perspective.
Microsoft is best-known for Windows - a graphical user interface that was easier to learn and much less intimidating than MS-DOS. Oh, and by the way, it just happened to largely mimic a lot of the key features of Apple's Macintosh operating system (so much so that Apple sued). Likewise, the very popular Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program was the "me too" competitor to Lotus 1-2-3 that ultimately surpassed and buried its predecessor.
In other words, two of Microsoft's greatest successes were not original, novel product introductions, but rather competitive responses to the successful products of other companies. Microsoft may not always be innovative, then, but they are not stupid or unduly stubborn - if it sees an idea working, it figures out how to do it just as well, if not better. Apple has built the market for tablets (really, only Apple and Samsung have had any success with tablets), and now Microsoft is going to try to take it from them.
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A Disturbance in the Force
It may seem ludicrous to suggest that Apple should worry about Microsoft's entry into the tablet market and/or its partnership with Nokia in the smartphone market. After all, Apple is riding high - the company sold 67 million iPads in the first two years, whereas it took three years to sell that many iPhones, five years to sell that many iPods and 24 years to sell that many Macs. And maybe it is ludicrous - perhaps Apple has learned from its past failures and won't let Microsoft catch up and pass it the way it did in the PC market.
But while Apple may be safe, companies like Samsung, Nokia, Dell and Hewlett-Packard may have more to worry about. If Microsoft (and Google) can succeed with their own devices, do they really need partners like Samsung and Nokia? And if turns out that Microsoft's mobile OS is just as good, or better, than Apple's, are we going to see a repeat of the PC market evolution?
The Bottom Line
For better or worse, competition in a free market means either coming up with truly innovative ideas (and taking on outsized risks trying to turn them into commercial successes) or identifying what is already popular and successful and figuring out how to copy it without running afoul of patents and copyrights. It just so happens that Microsoft has been pretty good at this over the years, and now they appear ready to give it a go again in the mobile/tablet market.
Certainly there are no guarantees of success and maybe this really is just a "me too" last gasp from a company that is out of ideas and no longer innovate enough to compete. But companies that underestimate Microsoft have done so at their peril in the past, and all of the hyperbole about whether Microsoft is riding Apple's coattails really won't matter a bit, if the market share needle starts moving back in Microsoft's direction.