Real Microsoft v. FC Apple

Imagine, if you will, that some of our great tech companies are football (i.e. soccer) teams. Would Microsoft be Real Madrid perhaps? A great history – even if some of it, in both cases, remains shrouded in mystery – very rich and very powerful. But living a bit on past glories? A deserved reputation for hard and, perhaps, cynical management? Failing to keep up with the flair of more fleet-footed, creative rivals?

Apple, meanwhile, could be FC Barcelona. Forever putting style and skill ahead of plain commercial success? An attitude that has lead to steep swings up and down in its fortunes. But when the creative Messiah is in residence, the whole place lights up and carries all before it – champions of the World, with old adversaries eating their dust. Their only fault is that they are too good to be true.

Even die-hard followers are a bit askance at some Barça players’ synchronised diving displays, and that pristine charity boosting shirt has finally been sold off to the highest bidder. And over at Apple (whose cult followers make the most fanatical football fan look like a fake) who can excuse the hard-nosed ‘30 per cent cut and we control the subscribers’ take-it-or-leave-it imposed on content owners wanting to provide through Apple Apps. Even Bill Gates would blush.

What next for these two titans? Will the giants be refreshed or will new players take the honours? In football, it’s easy to say it’s all about the money, but it’s not that simple, otherwise why isn’t every major final contested between Chelsea and Manchester City? It’s the same in tech stocks. Microsoft has $50 billion lying around, so it’s going to buy something big and transformative. The number one candidate is Nokia, the handset maker with which it already has an operating platform deal. Nokia is like Liverpool FC, a once great side on the slide and hanging on by its fingernails to place in the elite level. Nokia and Liverpool have taken more tactical wrong turns than a hacked satnav.

What Microsoft lacks is the product flair and creative instinct of Apple. It is precisely these same faults that have seen Nokia crash from World #1 to also-ran. If it comes to pass, Microsoft can afford to make such a colossal and expensive mistake as buying Nokia, and that’s just as well as I’ve rarely seen a better example of a disaster waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, at Apple all the speculation rests on the ‘Man Utd question’. What happens when your managerial and creative talisman leaves the house? Can any replacement conjure that combination of flair – that attracts the fan base – while simultaneously focusing on the bottom line? The problem with running a football club or a business as a personality cult, is the market thinks the personality is irreplaceable, whether that’s true or not.