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Apple and Microsoft’s visions for the future are delightfully different

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One wants the device at the center of your life, the other wants to make the device irrelevant

Microsoft’s evolution over the past few years has brought it closer to Apple than ever before. Just like its old nemesis, the Windows company now sells its own phones and tablets, gives away OS updates for free, and runs a large network of retail stores. The first flagship Microsoft Store is, in fact, being set up only a few blocks away from Apple’s iconic cube on Fifth Avenue. But dig below these skin-deep similarities and shared geographies, and you’ll find two fundamentally different strategies.

For Apple, the future of the personal computer is about making the machine even more personal. That’s the premise underlying the new Apple Watch: the idea of creating a stronger and more literal bond between the smart device and its user, who now becomes its wearer. Microsoft, on the other hand, defines its future as one of more personal experiences rather than devices. These approaches differ dramatically, but that doesn’t make them incompatible. In fact, it’s because Apple and Microsoft are pursuing such thoroughly divergent goals that the two can work together in an unprecedented fashion.

The two tech giants are now more complementary than ever

The history of Apple and Microsoft’s relationship has often been one of direct confrontation. Whether it’s Surface vs. iPad, Zune vs. iPod, or the classic PC vs. Mac, the two American giants have often competed for the same clientele, trying to sate the same needs. Now, with Microsoft essentially conceding the supremacy of Android and iOS as the predominant mobile operating systems, there’s more room to see the best of both Apple and Microsoft in one device. A handy example of such synergy was shown off during Microsoft’s Build 2015 conference last week, with an Uber add-on for Outlook on the iPad allowing you to book a ride directly from your calendar.

Microsoft is doing everything in its power to tear down the walls between various mobile devices and platforms. This past week it also showed how Android and iOS apps can be ported to Windows, and its hardware ambitions under Satya Nadella appear to be much more geared toward ensuring affordability than they ever were during Steve Ballmer’s reign. The Microsoft goal is true universality of apps, running on the widest range of devices, whereas Apple is focused on a narrow Continuity between iOS and OS X devices. You can pick up calls and respond to SMS messages on your Mac, but only if you’re using an iPhone — try to make that same bit of synergy work with an Android phone or a Windows tablet and it all falls apart.

Apple's doing what it's always done while Microsoft is evolving into a more Google-like company

When Apple brings new software and services to its devices, it does so with the deliberate aim of making them stand apart from the rest, which is precisely what Microsoft’s now working to reverse. Apple loves to present itself as a company that combines hardware, software, and services into one incomparable package, but its revenues every year show that, at least financially, it’s primarily a hardware company. Everything Apple does is designed to sell another iPhone, iPad, or Mac — even the Apple Watch, in its present fledgling state, amounts to little more than the world’s fanciest iPhone accessory.

While Apple continues chasing hardware sales, Microsoft has turned its attention to recruiting the greatest number of users. Choosing to make Office free for Android and iOS was a momentous decision for Microsoft, giving a boost to its fiercest rivals and foregoing a significant source of direct revenue, but it was done with a clear plan in mind. Playing the long game, Microsoft wants to ensure absolute ubiquity for its Office suite, which it hopes to turn into a platform for popular apps like Uber to build upon.

It’s the same objective that Facebook is pursuing with its Messenger Platform: both companies are trying to inject themselves as an extra layer between the device and the user by offering a unique service or experience. Japan’s Line and China’s WeChat have already shown how lucrative such self-contained mobile platforms can be — combining messaging, gaming, mobile payments, and yes, even a taxi service — when they prove themselves appealing enough to develop a big audience. Needless to say, Apple would prefer that all of those interactions and transactions happen directly on its own platform.

The actual computer doesn’t matter to Microsoft, whereas it’s paramount to Apple

The term "platform" has been applied to so many different things lately that it’s starting to feel meaningless, but it has a relatively straightforward definition. In the tech world, a platform is any space that you can own and make attractive enough for others to pay rent to occupy. The App Store and iPhone are the digital and physical manifestations of Apple’s platform. They are the big lightning rods for attention that everyone is drawn to. What Microsoft is endeavoring to do is to build its own profitable operation on top of that, and the primary form of rent it’s paying is the provision of its most valuable software for free. Having gravitated closer to the Apple business model under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft now has more in common with Google, which set the blueprint for successfully growing a suite of free services on external platforms.

The future of personal technology is mobile, that much is uncontroversial. For Apple, mobile means mobile devices, whereas for Microsoft, it means mobile experiences that transcend devices. Whether it’s Android, iPhone, or Windows, the basic operating system is just a facilitator to Microsoft’s grand vision of cloud-enabled computing. The actual computer doesn’t matter to Microsoft, whereas it’s paramount to Apple. That dichotomy will define the areas of innovation that each company focuses on, with Apple pursuing thinner, lighter, better, faster machines, and Microsoft chasing ambitious new modes of interaction like the augmented reality HoloLens. One platform is in your hands, the other is in the cloud. One has proven spectacularly profitable, the other has everything left to prove.

Verge Video Microsoft's new and (sort of) improved HoloLens