Microsoft is becoming your grandma's computer company

Apple is trendy where it counts, and Microsoft is not, as a visit to the heartland attests

Might Microsoft rue the day it saved Apple in August 1997 with a $150 million investment? Because these days, Apple is all the rage and Microsoft is starting to look like Lawrence Welk in the Beatles era -- somebody your grandmother listened to on Sunday nights, playing music no longer considered,  shall we say, cutting-edge.

While Apple steamrolls ahead with its wildly popular iPad tablet and iPhone, Microsoft is promising us we'll be really excited about Windows Phone 7 -- just keep waiting till Christmas, folks -- and canceling its Courier tablet project.

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As far as what Microsoft is up against, I saw all I needed to see at a recent family gathering. Leaving my usual Silicon Valley confines, I traveled to Pennsylvania's Poconos region to see my sister and her family. One Sunday evening during my visit, my niece and nephews came over with their significant others, bringing in tow a Macintosh, an iPad, and a slew of iPhones, including one with a cracked screen that still worked. There were a few BlackBerrys around the house, too.

These are people who don't work in high tech but in industries such as pharmaceuticals and automobile sales; they're all in their mid-20s to early 30s. But they certainly are not lacking in tech savvy; my niece knew the iPad wouldn't run Flash, for example. Still, they're not us-against-the-world Apple fanboys, just fans of Apple's technology.

Everyone that evening had some fun messing with these devices, particularly the "Talking Larry" iPhone application that features an animated bird that repeats whatever is said into the device.

I began thinking to myself, "Where was Microsoft in all this? Isn't everyone using Microsoft?" Well, there was a Microsoft PC relegated to a back room and used primarily by, um, me.

For me, the evening presented a microcosm of what Microsoft is up against: Apple's trendy, consumer-focused devices are what younger people want to use. And this can't help but spill over into the workplace, too.

Just to check my hypothesis, I took a look around the Los Angeles airport on the way home to see what people were using there. Once again, Apple's devices were more visible than the occasional Windows PC.

The situation has gotten even grimmer for Microsoft with the recent introduction of Research in Motion's PlayBook. A fierce upcoming tablet battle, which will ensue when PlayBook is released next year, will pit RIM's PlayBook against Apple's iPad against a bunch of Android tablets. But Microsoft is nowhere to be found.

In the past, Microsoft has often trailed in delivering new technologies, such as the graphical user interface and Internet browser. But Microsoft ended up doing just fine in those markets, where it achieved dominance after a major effort that learned from the competitors' early successes.

Today seems different: Microsoft's repeated laggardness in the mobile space -- smartphones and tablets -- despite several claims to have seen the light (Windows Mobile 6.5, the Kin, and now Windows Phone 7) could foretell the end of the company's reign as the king of software.

It is a given that more and more PC users will convert to these smaller, easier-to-carry devices. Apple, Google, and RIM have established too much mind share here for Microsoft to think it can just breeze into a leadership role once again.

Microsoft will need to get on the ball fast or its technology eventually could become more prominent at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum than on enterprise desktops or in your pocket.

This article, "Microsoft is becoming your grandma's computer company," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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