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Tim Cook says Microsoft's big problem held it back

Technically Incorrect: The Apple CEO says Apple doesn't cling to legacy technology and that Microsoft did. He also says Steve Jobs changed his mind all the time.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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He's always prepared to walk away, he says. Charlie Rose; YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I can't count the number of times someone has stared me in the face, eyes aflame, and said: "You know what your problem is?"

Thankfully, it's never the same problem. I call this progress. I wonder, though, what Tim Cook would call it.

Asked by Fast Company whether Apple might fall into the same problems as Microsoft by trying to be all things to all people with its operating system, the Apple CEO mused: "I think it's different. Part of the reason Microsoft ran into an issue was that they didn't want to walk away from legacy stuff."

It's an interesting word, "legacy." Some people think of it as a thing to leave behind after you're dead, so that others think of you fondly.

In this case, Cook was suggesting that Microsoft had a certain stick-in-the-mud obstinacy about the things the company created.

He said: "Apple has always had the discipline to make the bold decision to walk away. We walked away from the floppy disk when that was popular with many users. Instead of doing things in the more traditional way of diversifying and minimizing risk, we took out the optical drive, which some people loved. We changed our connector, even though many people loved the 30-pin connector."

Those of dry countenance might wonder whether some of the reasons Apple walks away from certain technologies is so that the company can make more money from something new.

When there's a new connector, you can't use it with your old products. Equally you can't use your old connector with your new product. So you end up having a lot more connectors. And Apple dances the cha-cha-ching.

Cook admitted that some of these decisions weren't popular. He admitted Apple wasn't perfect. But he insisted that the goal was always to hide the complexity from the user and to give people the best and simplest experience possible.

Microsoft, though, often saw a different world than did Apple. It was dominant. It exercised its muscle. Part of that exercise entailed precisely keeping certain legacies, perhaps because the company thought it would be easier to drag users along to the next version.

Cook, though, explained that Apple's culture wasn't like that. He said that everything is open to be changed, except for Apple's values.

Of Steve Jobs, he said: "I mean, Steve was the best flipper in the world. And it's because he didn't get married to any one position, one view. He was married to the philosophy, the values. The fact that we want to really change the world remains the same. This is the macro point. This is the reason we come to work every day."

These comments come as a new Steve Jobs biography -- "Becoming Steve Jobs" by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli -- is about to launch. In an excerpt published Monday, Bill Gates is asked if he could imagine Jobs as Microsoft's CEO. He replies: "He would have been terrible." (It's unclear whether Gates imagined Jobs as Microsoft CEO with Gates still there or not.)

Ultimately, Apple's attitude has managed to capture more human imaginations than has Microsoft's. On the whole, it's thought about people as much as it's thought about itself.

That's the secret of any thriving relationship, isn't it? It's something the new, more open Microsoft is embracing now.