It's a tale of two incrementals.
One technology company introduces an upgraded device and a lower priced model. Lines form around the world and it sells 9 million units in a couple of days. The other company pushes its upgraded gadgets and ... ellicits a collective yawn.
So what makes Apple a blooming success for consumers while Microsoft continues to wither on the vine?
Technologically speaking, there's no question that Apple's latest iPhone 5S and 5C represent modest improvements over the previous version (even taking into account the new iOS 7 software and fingerprint reader). And Microsoft's latest Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 tablets introduced this week are computing powerhouses, offering features and capabilities available in few other PCs. But the two are garnering opposite reactions. Why?
Things have changed since the days of the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC commercials." It's no longer true that Apple commands a special cache that sets those who own their products apart from everyone else. The company no longer thinks differently. Grandmothers and preschoolers use iPads and iPhones; they are as common as cafe latte. And yet people still flock like crows to shiny new Apple products.
Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And this is part of Apple's Midas touch (gold phones notwithstanding). The company has succeeded not by putting revolutionary technologies in the hands of customers, but rather by carefully integrating mature technologies into simple devices. Put an iPod next to a turntable (and crates of LPs) or a desktop computer, for that matter, and the difference is immediately apparent.
So why can't Microsoft do the same thing? Aren't the new Surface tablets chock full of the latest technologies?
One reason the former computing monopoly is struggling in the smartphone and tablet world is that Microsoft's products are not clearly demarcated. It's a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop replacement. It's a touch screen, but for truly productive work, you need a keyboard. Oh, and if you get the Surface 2, it actually won't run some of the Windows programs you need (just dropping the RT moniker isn't going to help buyers, it's going to confuse them). In other words, it's not a dessert topping or a floor wax.
Conversely, Apple thinks simple. Its smartphone doesn't pretend to be anything but a smartphone. The iPhone design is carefully considered, offering nothing that could confuse consumers -- or cause regular system crashes. There's no near field communications (NFC) feature in the new phones, for example, something that is already available in Android and Windows phones. Why? Because the market isn't ready for it yet. When mobile payment systems get worked out, then Apple will add the feature, and not before.
Consider also that quality and "specsmanship" isn't necessarily relevant in winning over shoppers. Microsoft's MP3 player, the now deceased Zune, was superior to Apple's iPod in many technical respects. The Zune had a better preamp, better earphones, and cleaner sound quality, but all of this fell on deaf consumer ears. (Where's my iTunes store?)
The success of Apple's latest iPhones has clearly taken Wall Street by surprise. The stock had been spiraling downward and many pundits have lamented that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. But consumers don't care ... at least until the market is completely saturated. So Apple has a considerable distance to go selling smartphones and tablets before the market runs out of steam.
In the meantime, Microsoft does have hardware success that it is trying to build on: The new $499 Xbox One gaming and media hub comes out in November. The bad news is that it's going to go head-to-head against Sony's PlayStation 4, which will cost $100 less.
But there is some good news for Microsoft: It won't have to compete against Apple that time.