Google, Microsoft, Apple, and the Divergence of Computing Philosophies

When it comes to computing platforms, the dominant leaders of today — Apple, Google, Microsoft — have embarked down three fundamentally different paths. Debating the superiority of these philosophies is not only premature, it is futile. The market is the final arbiter. Not the media, pundits, or analysts like myself. All we can do is point out and understand their differences and hope to learn and gauge the computing evolution ability to meet the market’s needs. Here is how I see the computing philosophies of the dominant platforms.


Microsoft owns the desktop and laptop market. Over a billion Microsoft PCs are currently in use today, which is an impressive number. I’ll be repeating a theme throughout this analysis which is that the PC is not dead — its simply not a growth market. Microsoft has developed a computing philosophy based on convergence. They believe the screens that run Microsoft software should have the same consistent UI and, more importantly, that tablets and PCs converge. My read on Microsoft’s strategy is that it remains highly PC-centric. Their hope is their billion plus users will desire a converged experience driven from the PC down to the smartphone.

There is value in convergence. Devices work the same and have the same UI. Consistency has its value where you can learn an interface one time and then pick up new screens in the Microsoft ecosystem and you know how to use it. This philosophy is not necessarily right or wrong. It’s just different.


Apple’s philosophy is slightly different in that it emphasizes continuity. The right interface for the right screen at the right moment. Although the devices may have different UIs and experience, there is a continuity in how they work together. Apple believes the function of the PC is different than that of the tablet, which is to a degree different than the smartphone. In essence, each device has a unique role to play. The hardware is different and therefore the software should take advantages of those differences.

Continuity has its advantages. There is a seamlessness of the experience in Apple’s ecosystem. While my screens may have degrees of differing UI, they still seem to function as a comprehensive whole. Apple’s new feature, Handoff, is designed to enable more seamlessness between their devices. What is intriguing about Apple’s philosophy is it appears to be a “mobile up” strategy rather than a “PC down” philosophy like Microsoft. Where Microsoft views tablets and PCs as the same device and the smartphone as an accessory to the PC, Apple views the PC as an accessory to the tablet and smartphone. Again, this philosophy is not necessarily right or wrong, just different.


At the center of Google’s experience is the cloud, their cloud. Maps, search, cards via Google now, email, and all the things that feed the Google engine are at the center. Where Microsoft and Apple have traditionally taken a very hardware and software view of the world, and are now working up to services, Google started with a services view of the world and then worked its way into software and hardware. Which is why for so long Google’s services have been better than competitors. This allows Google a certain kind of nimbleness that makes them the competitor they are.

A cloud based strategy has its advantages. The least being if we ever go to a fully thin client/server model, Google stands to be in a strong position. More importantly, Google has dominated many corners of the web experience which remains central to mobile computing. Where Apple views their other computers as accessories to the iPhone, Google views devices as accessories to the cloud. Once again, this philosophy is not necessarily right or wrong, just different.

Just Glass

Our TV, PCs, smartphones, and tablets are all just glass. Their guts give them smarts, their software brings them to life, and their services connect them to the power of the internet. All these screens are important. This needs to be clear. The TV, PC, smartphone, and tablet all have a role as platforms for software and services. Each companies’ philosophy allows for healthy variety to exist in the marketplace. What is fascinating is how each company is serving the market in different ways. Again — not right or wrong but just different. The market is large enough to sustain these differences in computing philosophies. As I have pointed out before, history is still being written and therefore we can’t discount any one of these philosophies of computing. But we can understand their differences and observe which ones gain more or less traction over time. What is important is computing is being advanced by these platform companies. Empowering the masses via computing is ultimately what matters. Not who wins or loses or whose philosophy is right or wrong.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

21 thoughts on “Google, Microsoft, Apple, and the Divergence of Computing Philosophies”

  1. One key difference you don’t mention (pointed out to me by Stratechery this week): Microsoft and Google are fundamentally trying to continue doing what they have always done (google trying to move its pre-existing web services into a mobile world, MS trying to have “windows” on all devices). Apple, OTOH, made a much more clean break from the past with IOS (the same linux and programming tools as OS X under the hood, but otherwise everything new).

    It’s going to take years to learn whether Google and MS’s unwillingness to leave their comfort zones is going to be a crippling hinderance to them in the mobile world or just a minor inconvenience. Apple has stayed within its comfort zone as far as its pricing regime goes (and that has hindered its growth in the phone market), but that’s a lot easier to change than the architectural decisions made by MS and Google.

    1. Yes, while I didn’t come out and say it, that was woven into the narrative. MS going PC down, and Google with their services going Service first / down. But while we can make the critique of them not leaving their comfort zones, I think we can also make the same claim to Apple as well to a degree. I do actually think I am seeing the beginnings of all three companies look to start to get outside their comfort zone a little.

      I could do another analysis just on this point, that I do actually see all three companies putting the building blocks together to begin getting outside their comfort zone. Some will take longer than others.

      1. Apple has always lived by its wits; the others off ads and trust funds. Maybe that explains why Apple seems a serious endeavor and the others … a bit frivolous.

        Apple sets its bar high to boot, refusing to betray quality for quantity. The others? Couldn’t care less who gets whatever garbage, as long as they get paid.

        Here’s what Apple knows: Great will engender cheap but cheap will only lead to cheaper. Apple creates the best for the rest; the best it can and remain great.

        1. Apple kind of has to set its bar high, it lives and dies (or almost did) by high margins. If the product isn’t attractive enough to command those high margins that $150 bilion could be gone pretty quick.

          1. Fair enough. I think most tech companies are set up like the US government: they fail to budget or capitalize the future. By holding margins high, Apple has future proofed itself … this time around … as well as the future can be proofed.

          2. Yes. Say what you will about Apple, but one existential crisis seemed to have been enough for the big brains in Cupertino. Like my grandparents who survived the Great Depression, Apple will always make sure they have enough cash to survive whatever may come.

          3. Just to say, it’s not high margins driving the apple cart to do great stuff. My guess as an old manager is that it’s the engineers and designers. And one way to keep the best is to challenge them; that’s what the best want more than anything. The chance to do great things.

          4. I don’t think any engineer sets out to make crap. It’s just easier to make great stuff when you’re given the time and encouragement to do it right. That time and encouragement comes when the finished product is expected to have a 40% gross margin.

          5. All kinds of engineers in the world. It ain’t what they want to do; it’s what the best can do.

  2. There’s also a difference on whom and what each company views as their main customer (enterprises, consumers, advertisers) and main product (a platform, an ecosystem, you).

  3. Seems like Apple is most strongly aligned with end users/consumers. That should give them an advantage long term.

    1. Apple is the only consumer products company of the three. Microsoft has tried, hard to be one, but it’s pretty clear they just don’t get selling to “civilians.” Google, despite what most people think, isn’t a technology company, it’s an advertising sales company that uses technology to accumulate user data to make its targeted ads more lucrative.

      1. Exactly. The computer for the rest of us. I’m always surprised by the number of people, analysts and tech nerds, that give Google a pass on this. Google’s business is selling ads. Stuff like self-driving cars, Glass, wifi balloons, and so on, that’s all a sideshow, a distraction, none of those are real products ready for the consumer market. And yet the tech media generally laps it up, declaring Google innovative and using terms like ‘moonshot’.

  4. Well done. As these computing philosophies are also linked to their business models (monetization, vertical/horizontal integration), you may want to characterize that at some time, and add Amazon and Samsung into the mix.

  5. This isn’t a matter of “differing computing philosophies” it’s a matter of differing monetizations. Your glass analogy is apt, but it’s better to think of it as Apple is selling you beautiful glass windows that complement your decor (and impress your neighbors with your good taste), Google is giving you plexiglass portals so they can see into your house to watch what you’re doing and so you can see the ad they’re going to put right outside that portal, and Microsoft is selling the tools that the workmen will use to make the holes in your wall for Apple and Google’s windows (see what I did there?) to be installed into. Apple wants to patent its windows designs, Google wants everyone’s house to be made entirely of plexiglass, and Microsoft just hopes workmen stay busy while it transitions to a weathstriping/caulking business.

  6. While the philosophies of each may not necessarily be right or wrong I would be tempted to make the argument that Apples implementation is more effective outside of cost sensitive markets. Trying to shoehorn one OS everywhere (MS) or being completely dependent on cloud services (Google) seems less appealing when compared to Apples approach of using the right tool for the right job.

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