Microsoft wins, hands down.
Microsoft gave the world two things:
- Microsoft was the first real software company.
- Microsoft did put a PC on every desk and in every home.
At the end of the day, it’s that last part that matters. By shifting the value in computing to software, Microsoft commoditized computing hardware and made computing accessible to the masses. If this isn’t one of the most significant events in history, nothing is.
Now, some people will say that Microsoft did this by copying Apple’s innovations like the graphical user interface. Whatever. First of all, Apple famously copied those from Xerox PARC. Great artists steal. Second of all, by any meaning of the word, the person who changes the world isn’t the one who comes up with the idea, it’s the one who executes on it, and 1980s Apple failed to execute (a lesson well learned by Apple under Steve Jobs 2.0).
The original Macintosh did show where the future of computing was headed, but it was also a commercial failure. 1980s Apple failed to understand the value of software, in particular third party software, which was lacking in the Macintosh. (This writer’s mother bought two computers in the mid-1980s: the first Macintosh and the first IBM PC. There was a lot more software for the PC. So she kept buying PCs, to this day–though she has an iPhone.)
Microsoft, being a software company, built an operating system platform that let thousands of others innovate which, along with Moore’s Law, made PCs cheaper and more valuable every year which meant more and more people could get access to them, in a vicious circle.
Being the first big, viable software company also meant Microsoft cleared the way for thousands of other software innovators,when it was in no way obvious at the start that a company could be viable making just software.
The hardware may have been ugly, and the software clunky (a big reason why Windows is buggy is because of Microsoft’s amazing 20 year commitment to backwards compatibility, which makes PC software a cohesive environment, a tremendous service to users and the world, for which it gets no credit. With less software to support, Apple can afford to wipe the slate clean every ten years, a strength born of weakness.), but it was the software that millions of people used, and loved.
Nowadays Apple is so huge and efficient that it can afford to make the best products at the best prices. But when the personal computer revolution happened, the Macintosh was a Mercedes and MS-DOS was the Model T. The Model T might have been ugly, clunky and cheap, but being cheap it also changed the lives of millions and transformed the world in a way that the early auto pioneers, amazing and necessary though they were, didn’t.
Now, Apple may yet get its revenge. The mobile computing revolution, with smartphones and tablets, will be at least as big as the desktop computing revolution, and Apple is seriously taking the lead. Android has a good chance of disrupting iOS, but Apple also has a great chance of remaining the dominant mobile platform. Maybe 20 years from now we’ll look back and see Apple had an impact at least as big as Microsoft in the 1980s.
But if we’re looking now, Microsoft clearly had a bigger impact on the world than Apple. The fact that we all love Apple products and they’re gorgeous doesn’t change the fact that the company that actually made the world realize the magic of software, and made computing accessible to almost everyone on the planet, is Microsoft.