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Surface envy: Apple is trying to ruin Windows 8’s launch

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Apple hates Android and wants to undermine Google at every opportunity. The evidence is everywhere, from Steve Jobs’ infamous willingness to “go thermonuclear” on the OS, to the banishing of Google Maps and YouTube from iOS 6. But it’s been more than a decade since Apple has appeared to loathe Microsoft. Yes, they used to be bitter rivals, but that was in a different time. Or, at least, we thought it was. But with Apple holding a major press conference on October 23, just three days before Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and Microsoft’s Surface tablets go on sale, it’s apparent that it once again considers Microsoft a threat.

Microsoft has been building up to this moment for a while, and make no mistake the Oct. 26 launch of Windows 8 is the company’s big moment of 2012, and possibly 2013 too. Windows 8 is the basis of the Microsoft’s strategy and product plans for the coming years, and it’s vitally important that it succeeds and gets good buzz.

Apple October 23 inviteApple however, wants to assert its position, and will do so on Oct. 23, regardless of the products it launches. If the rumors are true and it shows a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, a new Mac mini, or a curvy iMac, Apple will be saying “Computers? We do them better.” If it’s the iPad Mini, Apple will be reminding Microsoft that it has been making its own touchscreen hardware for a long, long time, and it can still suck up all the buzz and press, even when all it announces is a smaller, cheaper version of an existing product.

This is Apple flexing its muscles, arming its warheads, positioning the fleet, and pointing the finger directly at Microsoft. The sad thing for Microsoft is, it’s not even that aggressive a move. It’s as if Apple doesn’t really want or even need to spend much energy deflecting Microsoft’s efforts. A single press conference and product might do it. Even the event invitation’s slogan, “We’ve got a little more to show you,” makes the whole thing sound like an afterthought.

Apple to Surface missiles

What’s Apple’s problem, then? Apple is winning in smartphones and tablets — 85 million-plus iPhones sold in the US alone, 68-percent market share in tablets — and while Windows may dominate the home PC market, Mac OS X’s market share has been improving. Not that improving PC sales mean much. As we all know, PC sales are going nowhere but down at the moment.

Is this all about the Surface? Possibly, yes. Apple probably doesn’t relish the idea of another competitor trying to steal away some of its precious market share, and it’s obviously worried enough about the impact of cheap Android tablets to introduce a cheaper, smaller iPad. Microsoft has confirmed that it’s targeting the iPad with the official pricing of its tablets, with the 32GB Windows RT Surface going for $500, $100 less than the equivalent iPad. In the UK, that same 32GB Surface is £400, exactly the same price as a 16GB iPad.

It’s a sound business decision on Apple’s part to crash Microsoft’s party, but we can’t help but wonder if Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s words from an interview earlier this year initially woke the beast. Speaking to CRN.com, Ballmer was referring to Apple’s lead in innovation when he said: “We are not going to let any piece of this go uncontested by Apple, not the consumer cloud, not hardware or software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen. Not on our watch.”

Now that’s just asking for trouble.

But looking back, perhaps Apple did land the first blow. In April, during a quarterly earnings call, CEO Tim Cook criticized Microsoft’s attempt to merge tablets and PCs with Windows 8. “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but you know those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user… And you wouldn’t want to put these things together because you wind up compromising both and not pleasing the user. Some people will prefer to own both, and that’s great there. But I think to make the compromises of convergence, we’re not going to that party. Others might. Others might from a defensive point of view, particularly. We’re going to play in both.”

A carefully crafted strike

The timing of Apple’s event is no accident: it’s a carefully crafted pre-emptive strike against Microsoft, which it hopes will crush any resistance that may be forthcoming. Apple wants to dilute whatever buzz surrounds Windows 8 and keep the eye of attention on itself throughout the holidays. It’s all very “shock and awe,” but Apple is proving that it’s has its eye on the steadily rising wave of competition. Is all this noise and brashness merely to cover up a degree of fear creeping in at Cupertino? If so, it needs to be careful. Predators can smell fear from miles away.