Microsoft Vs. Apple: It's Now Life or Death

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When it comes to software giant Microsoft (MSFT) and its status among the ranks of current technology powers, it has become a case of either you like the company or you hate it. There seems to be no in-between.

The company is often loathed for the fact that it is not Apple ( AAPL) and praised for not free-falling in the manner of Research in Motion ( RIMM). However, it appears that Wall Street has already made up its mind about which camp it falls under and cares very little if anyone has taken notice.

It is clear that in order for Microsoft to earn any respect, it has to be exceptional going forward in its execution. Not only has Wall Street demonstrated a gross dislike for the company's management, but it appears incessantly unimpressed and ready to issue a thumbs down at a moment's notice for things that would otherwise generate standing ovations for lesser-known companies.

Be that as it may, this is the company's new reality and as it prepares to launch its highly anticipated Windows 8 operating system. I think that it understands what it needs to do.

For that reason, its life now depends on its success, because I don't envision a scenario where it can screw this up and expect to live to talk about it -- particularly in a market that is ready to punish anything with signs of slowing growth. However, investors continue to discount that the company understands where it is today and appreciates what is at stake. Although Apple and Google ( GOOG) continue to get all of the press coverage, Microsoft has been working hard to expand Windows outside the chassis of the traditional PC and into the realm of mobility which includes tablets and smartphones.

To that end, it has partnered with ARM Holdings ( ARMH) to employ its chip technology in Windows 8 -- a product it's betting will bring back its lost consumer market share in the realm of mobile devices and restore its innovative prowess. In typical Wall Street fashion, analysts have decided to take a "wait and see" attitude, which is understandable considering the lackluster results of previous OS launches. For that matter, Microsoft is still battling demons from its Vista launch. However, it appears that Apple is not taking this lightly and has countered with its own announcement of OSX Mountain Lion that is due out this summer.

While it understands that the market may be indeed underestimating Microsoft, with Mountain Lion Apple wants to remind consumers that it is still "the king" of mobile, regardless of how revolutionary Windows 8 is expected to be. Moreover, Apple now realizes that it is under a considerable amount of assault from numerous positions. Not only is it battling Samsung in the courts over patents, but it is also in a neck-and-neck race with the South Korean giant for smartphone supremacy -- one in which Samsung has now taken the lead.

Its constant battle with Google over pretty much everything has become legendary, its fighting to keep its tablet dominance over Amazon ( AMZN) whose Kindle Fire has gained considerable ground since its launch. In response, Apple is now considering a tablet mini of its own. So the last things it wants to do now is worry about protecting its blindside from Microsoft, which has partnered with Nokia ( NOK) to unleash hardware attacks of their own.

The question is, how much are we really discounting Microsoft if it has gotten Apple's attention to this extent? And can Apple maintain its focus enough on Microsoft to not allow other distractions to create any possible weakness for Windows 8 to truly become the game-changer that Microsoft needs it to be?

By announcing the launch of Mountain Lion, I am convinced that it was a pre-emptive move to thwart off any potential momentum by Microsoft. Apple was smart enough to understand that Windows 8 is arguably Microsoft's real last shot at being a consumer player again. For that matter, it may be the company's best opportunity to be re-embraced by the enterprise. In response, Apple has started playing defense and tactically chipping away at any possible advantage. Microsoft needs to get this right and prove that it learned from its previous mistakes. However, some very important questions still remain and how it addresses them will certainly determine how viable Windows 8 can be.

On the consumer side, how will the younger users embrace Windows 8? Will it be like previous iterations where all of the benefits were solely for enterprise users? Additionally, can the UltraBooks that are due out later this summer by Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) be enough to take a chunk out of the dominance of the MacBook Air to help spur the popularity of Windows 8? Can Microsoft figure out a way to capitalize on the "bring your own device" (BYOD) trend and will Windows 8 be enough to encourage IT managers to want to upgrade their networks and not resist to the extent of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Bottom Line

With Windows 8, Microsoft has an opportunity to re-invent itself -- something that is very rare for mature companies of its size. What's more, it has a chance to re-ignite both its consumer and enterprise presence with a product on which its future as a tech power rests. In other words, the company understands what is at stake.

Not surprisingly, this is something that Apple understands as well. It seems the roles have now been reversed from 15 years ago when Microsoft was the dominant power and Apple was the one on life-support. Apple was successful at averting death, but this time will it be successful at taking away a life?

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

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