Microsoft vs. Apple: The battle rages on

One of geekdom's oldest cold wars has suddenly turned hot, as Redmond and Cupertino duke it out in public. Cringe has an idea who'll win

Some fights are just classics: Ali vs. Frazier. The Jedi Knights vs. The Empire. Godzilla vs. Rodan. And, of course, Microsoft vs. Apple.

Admittedly, there's been a lull in the action over the past decade. Apple essentially ceded the business PC space to Windows, while Microsoft can't make a product consumers actually want to buy no matter how many billions they throw at it. (OK, one: the Xbox. Otherwise, nada.)

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Suddenly, though, they're at it hammer and tongs, just like the good old/bad old days. Who's winning? That depends on whom you ask. According to MacWorld's Dan Moren, Microsoft is "running scared":

Apple has gained a lot of traction over the past decade. The iPod pushed the company back into the mainstream, and Cupertino only continued gaining currency as Mac OS X matured and it released some of the slickest machines around. Add in Microsoft's own problems dealing with Windows XP and its less-than-stellar successor, Vista, and Microsoft has started seeming like a non-entity these days.

On the other hand, PC Advisor's Simon Jary suggests Microsoft is now winning against both Apple and Google:

Apple appears rattled. And maybe Google is a little scared now that Microsoft has announced that it is to launch free online versions of its mighty Office applications.... When things looked bleakest for Microsoft the old giant has suddenly roared back to life, and it's Apple and Google who are left looking like frightened little boys just moments after apparently slaying the beast.

My take? Well, people still buy nine Windows machines for every Mac. The big reason? As those "laptop hunters" ads say, you get a lot more for your money from a Windows machine (including frustration). And the message appears to be getting through; a year ago, Apple was the No. 3 PC maker in the United States, according to IDC. Now it's slipped to No. 5.

On the other hand, Microsoft can't make a dent in Apple's stranglehold on the portable music market or touch Apple's technology lead in handsets. But worse than that, consumers love Apple the way they love puppies and ice cream. Aside from a handful of apopletic fanboys, people barely tolerate Microsoft. And it's only getting worse. According to VendorRate, Microsoft's customer satisfaction among IT pros dropped like rock over the past three months.

This week at Microsoft's worldwide partner confab in New Orleans, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner threw another jab at Apple, sharing this nifty little anecdote (full transcript):

...two weeks ago we got a call from the Apple legal department saying, "Hey, you need to stop running those ads, we lowered our prices." They took like $100 off or something. It was the greatest single phone call in the history that I've ever taken in business.

I did cartwheels down the hallway. At first I said, "Is this a joke? Who are you?" Not understanding what an opportunity. And so we're just going to keep running them and running them and running them.

As PC World's Nick Mediati notes, Apple did drop its prices in early June, making those "laptop hunter" ads a little off target -- the most likely reason Apple's legal beagles gave Turner a jingle. Even at $1,499 instead of $1,799, though, MacBooks still aren't exactly what you would call a steal.

Turner also announced Microsoft was planning to locate its own chain of retail shops in spitting distance of Apple Stores -- and, when possible, right next door. That ought to make for an interesting photo op, when there's a line around the block for the next iPhone and the Microsoft store is as quiet as a church.

Microsoft competes with everyone, so it needs to worry about everyone (but mostly about Google). Apple really competes only with itself. Think about it another way: Microsoft is trying to make a comeback in public perception by picking on somebody it's already beating in its primary market by a ratio of almost 10 to 1.

So this battle is really more like Godzilla vs. Bambi [video]. But even if Microsoft manages to squash Apple into a deer-sized pancake, it will never win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers. Because nobody loves the big scary lizard.

So who's winning, Bambi or Godzilla? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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