Are Apple and Microsoft ‘Trading Places’?

Anthony Caruana
15 May, 2017
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Fans of movies from the 1980s will remember the Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd comedy Trading Places. In the film, the wealthy Winthorpe Duke, played by Aykroyd, is stripped of his wealth. In his place, Eddie Murphy’s character, Billy Ray Valentine, is plucked from his life as a homeless street hustler and given all the wealth an privilege previously afforded to Duke. Never mind that the movie was completely stolen by veteran actors Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliot – it tells the story of when circumstances change and people adapt to new places.

Apple and Microsoft find themselves in a similar position today. Apple once was the Billy Ray of the tech world. Down on its luck, the company was on its knees, perhaps only weeks from total collapse. Microsoft’s Duke was in a position of power – fabulously wealthy and in control of a sprawling empire.

Today, Apple is worth an incredible US$800 billion. And for the last decade it has led the world in the intersection of technology and design. On the other hand, Microsoft’s dominance in desktop software has been usurped by mobile devices – something they never really mastered – and the software business they were built on has been turned on its head by the emergence of cloud-based solutions.

But, like in Trading Places, the tide is turning for Microsoft. This week, it announced the newest member of the Surface computer family, the Surface Laptop. And it has the Surface Pro, the Surface Studio for the desk and the Surface Hub for the boardroom. Its software offerings are now excellent – I pay $119 each year for an Office 365 subscription and its hardware is very good. While its hardware lacks the finesse of Apple’s, it is every bit as functional and surpasses Apple’s gear in some ways. I’ve been using a Surface Pro 4 for the last couple of weeks and being able to use it as a traditional notebook computer, as well as a tablet with pen input, is very useful.

I know I can do some of that with a MacBook and some with an iPad Pro, but I can’t do both with one computer from Apple.

At the conclusion of Trading Places, both Duke and Valentine come out on top, with Valentine taking advantage of the circumstances of his recovery from a life lived in destitution and Duke learning a lesson in humility.

I can’t help but think that Apple and Microsoft are playing out a corporate version of Trading Places.

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