Changing of the guard: Microsoft falls to No. 3

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Microsoft can react to being eclipsed in market value by Apple and IBM by either resigning itself to its fate or taking a cue from those that surpassed it

A year ago, much was made of the fact that Apple's market value had surpassed that of Microsoft's. At the time, it was hard to know whether this was a one-off kind of occurrence -- the result of a remarkable run-up by Apple -- or a permanent shift.

One year later, it's clear that the change is permanent, because a ghost from Microsoft's past has also surpassed it in market value: IBM. Yes, the company Microsoft left for dead more than a decade ago now has a higher market value than Microsoft.

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What a difference a decade and a half makes. The last time IBM's market value exceeded Microsoft's was 1996. As I write this, near the end of May 2011, Apple is valued at $308.08 billion, IBM at $205.2 billion and Microsoft at $203.82 billion. Meanwhile, Google is within striking distance of Microsoft, with a $167.05 billion market cap.

It's instructive to take a look at what Apple and IBM did to surpass Microsoft, and what Microsoft hasn't done as it has dropped to the No. 3 position in terms of tech-company valuation.

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