If you’ve seen the Laptop Hunters ads from Microsoft recently, you know that every single one of them features an Apple computer at some point during the “Hunter’s” shopping adventure. But why? Microsoft has TEN TIMES the software market share Apple has, and is the de-facto standard in personal and business computing markets. So why is Microsoft dumping incredible amounts of time, money, and emotion into this ad campaign against a flea on their back? Because they’re scared. Microsoft isn’t just scared, in fact, they’re terrified.

While on one hand you might look at Apple’s paltry 9% market share and balk at the infinitesimal nature of it, you might also contrast it with the 2.41% market share Apple held only 4 years ago. Apple is hitting the consumer/business sweet-spot hard, and Microsoft has nowhere to go but down.

Case in point: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Once hailed as the titan of web browsers with a >95% user base, IE today seems to be in a virtual market-share free-fall, nearing the 50% install base for all browsers worldwide. Just a few very short years ago Microsoft had a clear market advantage, while competitors had little hope of breaking in on the exclusive browser party. Yet, despite all the haughtiness of IE (maybe even because of it), other browsers such as Firefox and Safari have been able to chip away steadily at IE’s grip.

But most frightening to Microsoft must be the fact that while they’ve employed over 1,000 full-time developers at one time on IE, Mozilla employs only 175 full time employees. How did this small, lean, hodge-podge group of hackers manage to take the rug out from under Microsoft? While there are probably many factors (which I certainly won’t address here), it’s likely in part due to the fact that the Firefox developers were focused, determined, and eager to address a serious problem that was crippling the web space.

I can only see the competition having a royal fit behind closed doors in response to the current “browser war” climate. When all you have is everything, how can you survive if someone starts taking it away, little by little? In the last two years we’ve seen Microsoft pledge renewed support to web standards, CSS3/XHTML support, and even :gasp: transparent PNG’s. For those of you who don’t know how big of a deal this is, just ask your IT guy.

And don’t forget the smartphone market. I recall a couple of years back watching Steve Ballmer (chair-throwing CEO of Microsoft) scoffing violently at the idea that the iPhone posed a threat to their smartphone market dominance. His smarmy “Well, let’s wait and see, hahaha” attitude is nothing short of epic by way of fail. Not only has Microsoft lost half of their Windows Mobile presence seemingly overnight, they’ve lost nearly all of it to one, single phone: the teeny-weeny iPhone. Yes, that fledgling little phone has snuck in and stolen the proverbial wind right out of Microsoft’s smartphone sails.

And so the Déjà vu begins for Microsoft. Apple has gone from just over 2% desktop market share in ’05 to nearly 10% today. If Apple were to continue at this rate, they could theoretically own the entire OS market within the next ten years. Unlikely, but a frightening prospect for a company that has just witnessed how deafening the sound of a little trickle can become once it turns into an unstoppable landslide. Even with Microsoft’s sudden “conversion” to open web standards for their browser lineup, they’ve been able to do little to stop the inevitable slide down the slippery slope. Losing their grip on the web through IE is bad enough in a world where desktop apps are dwindling. But to lose additional OS install base to Apple, well that would be downright disastrous. Microsoft had a pretty good lock on consumer’s buying decisions because of IE. But with that strangle hold now loosened, people are beginning to peel back the scales from their eyes, and are curious to learn what else there is to see. Of course, there’s Apple. And oh, what a sight for sore eyes it is.

Then there’s the matter of money and power. Apple may be half the size of Microsoft, but as others have shown, Microsoft isn’t impenetrable. And Apple’s half-as-big size isn’t a bug that can be stepped on, it’s a smaller army with shorter swords but sharper tactics. Apple pulls in a healthy $33 Billion (that’s B) per year, and has over $15 Billion in cash on hand (probably closer to $18 bil by now). This from a company that Michael Dell (Founder of Dell Computers) stated that, if deciding what to do with Apple were up to him, he would “shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders”. Oh, and that was before Apple kicked Dell to the curb, surpassing Dells market cap in 2006. Yikes!

Also, let’s not overlook the irony of Microsoft paying their “hunters” to buy a computer with Windows on it, giving the deeper impression that the only value that comes from a PC comes by way of free, not cheap, when cheap is probably the biggest selling point of the commercial. I mean, even I would be thrilled for at least one day if someone outright bought me a Kia. Still, that wouldn’t stop the realization from hitting the very next day that I wanted to sell it.

So, back to the Laptop Hunters. For Microsoft, this isn’t a campaign to be cool. This isn’t even a campaign to sell the brand or the product. This is a campaign to survive. I’ll repeat myself, because this is really the point of it all: THIS IS A CAMPAIGN TO SURVIVE. This campaign is an attempt at a controlled blast to try to stop the Apple avalanche. Because Microsoft knows if things keep going as they have been for the last 5 years, they’re Applesauce. Maybe a more apt name for Microsoft’s Laptop Hunters campaign would be Apple Sniping. Clearly, the last thing Microsoft is hunting here is laptops.

*EDIT: As of Aug. 3rd, Apple apparently has just about $25 billion in total cash. http://finance.yahoo.com/q/ks?s=Aapl

Apple share: http://www.jeremyreimer.com/total_share.html, IE Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Explorer, Mozilla reference: http://www.spreadfirefox.com/node/238

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