Twenty-two years ago, Apple Computer aired its famous “1984” commercial during the Super Bowl. The ad’s message was clear: By giving power to the individual, Apple’s decentralized computing technology would bring an explosion of personal creativity that would demolish the oppressive control represented by IBM’s traditional, centralized computing technology. As Ted Friedman explains:
With the 1984 ad, Apple identified the Macintosh with an ideology of “empowerment” – a vision of the PC as a tool for combating conformity and asserting individuality … It turn[ed] the confusing complexity of the Information Age into a Manichean battle of good vs. evil. There’s the bad technology – centralized, authoritarian – which crushes the human spirit and controls peoples’ minds. Read, IBM. But we can be liberated from that bad technology by the good technology – independent, individualized – of the Mac.
Yesterday, Microsoft launched an assault on IBM using a very similar message. Microsoft, said CEO Steve Ballmer, offers “people-ready” computing. “Our innovations facilitate the power of people,” he went on, drawing a direct comparison with IBM: “Their pitch is to let IBM help your company with its innovation. Ours is to empower your people to innovate. The two approaches are striking in their contrast.” IBM is The Man – the hidden power behind the hegemony of the centralized, spirit-crushing Corporate IT Department – and Microsoft, like Apple before it, is going to help you stick it to him. “People, people, people,” boomed Ballmer, in case anyone missed the point.
But Microsoft’s Apple strategy goes deeper than its marketing message. Apple promoted the “integration” of its technology as a core strength. By maintaining a closed system, combining proprietary hardware and software, Apple could offer, it claimed, a better “user experience.” You didn’t have to worry about the technology – it just worked – so you could concentrate on doing your work and being creative.
Microsoft, which built its dominance in PCs on an open architecture, is now taking the Apple approach here as well. It’s saying that its integrated platform of corporate software, from the operating system to the desktop application, offers a better user experience – again freeing the individual to innovate. Microsoft’s Jeff Raikes argues, according to Business Week, that Microsoft “provides additional capabilities by integrating its products. ‘A combination of Microsoft technologies will always have more impact,’ he says.”
Will Microsoft’s strategy work? Will it erode IBM’s hold on corporate computing? I don’t know. But it’s worth remembering how the earlier Apple-IBM tussle turned out. The victor was neither Apple nor IBM. It was a third company that, at the time, both Apple and IBM viewed not as a competitor but as a benign partner. The company’s name was Microsoft.