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One of the coolest things about Fooldom is that we're all encouraged to arrive at independent conclusions when it comes to analyzing stocks.
We're investors writing for investors, after all -- not lemmings.
As someone who has taken his shots at Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) over the years and doesn't take offense to being called an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) fanboy, I approached Chris Baines' article detailing why Microsoft is a better investment than Apple with the same kind of bipartisan appreciation that I always do.
I enjoy reading about opinions that run counter to mine. I respect differing opinions, even if I ultimately don't agree with them. In fact, I'd rather be shaking my head than nodding along when I read any financial article. I prefer reckoning over validation.
Born to run
My fellow Fool believes that Microsoft is the better buy because it watches over a pair of virtual monopolies. It doesn't have to try as hard as Apple, where the pressure is on to perpetually innovate.
I can see where Chris is coming from. Apple is Lady Gaga, reinventing itself after every hit single. Microsoft is Bruce Springsteen, still selling out concert halls as a result of a couple of hits released more than 20 years ago.
See what I did there? I made Mr. Softy sympathetic to you, assuming that you're a bigger fan of The Boss than of today's hottest pop star. In reality, Microsoft is more of a two-hit wonder along the lines of The Knack, the Greg Kihn Band, or Men Without Hats.
See what I did there? I just pulled the rug out from under you.
Putting the "no" in innovation
Chris considers Apple a serial innovator, forced to raise the bar every time out. I don't exactly see it that way, but at least the class of Cupertino can find new ways to hit it out when it wants to. Microsoft couldn't innovate its way out of a corn maze with a weed whacker.
Microsoft tried to one-up Apple's iPod and it resulted in the Zune snooze. Bing turned a few heads during last year's launch, but Microsoft remains the only tech giant that's currently losing money in its online operations.
Yes, the Xbox 360 is a hit -- but it took years to get there, and margins there will always be a far cry from Microsoft's software stronghold.
I won't apologize, because Apple is just flat out better at Microsoft when it comes time to raise the bar. The real mistake here is assuming that Microsoft can just coast along without doing the same.
The world is changing
Operating systems and productivity suites may seem like virtual monopolies, but the climate is changing quickly.
Tablet sales are eating into the laptop space. Smartphone usage is the new portable computing. Microsoft's a distant player in both of these realms.
Even Microsoft partners are learning new languages. Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) have embraced Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android collective, and HP shelled out $1.2 billion for Palm to have its own proprietary operating system. Why pay for Windows when any hardware maker can go with the open Android for free?
Have you seen Microsoft's latest ads about going "to the cloud" for editing a family portrait, streaming video during a flight delay, or collaborating on presentation documents? What Microsoft doesn't want to tell you is that "to the cloud" is a euphemism for "away from Microsoft."
Free Web-based photo editors have been around for years. Google Docs and Oracle's (Nasdaq: ORCL ) Sun have been offering free productivity suites with virtual collaboration on the cloud for ages. And as for streaming video, does Microsoft really want to go there?
Three years ago, you needed a computer running Windows to stream from Netflix's (Nasdaq: NFLX ) digital library. These days, that's probably the last device that the 11 million of Netflix's 16.9 million subscribers who do stream would think of using. They're using tablets, Blu-ray players, and iPhones.
Sure, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is on Microsoft's board of directors, but he had no problem being a surprise presenter this year during Apple's iPhone 4 debut, sharing the stage with Steve Jobs in explaining that Netflix would be streaming on the new handset.
The safer bet is the smarter wager
Microsoft isn't as relevant as it was five years ago. Its stock price is essentially where it was 10 years ago. How confident are you as to where a fading Microsoft will be in five or 10 years?
Apple, on the other hand, has been ascending in that time. If innovation is the price that one has to pay to get folks to pay a premium for their products -- a position that Microsoft now finds itself in as it floats away in a sea of free alternatives that are growing in popularity -- I'll stick with the safer bet in Apple.
Ten years ago, Microsoft had the heftier cash balance. Not today. Ten years ago, Microsoft had the prettier stock chart. Not today. Microsoft is the one cranking out a dividend, but I'm sure every rational Microsoft investor would swap out that measly yield for the capital appreciation at Apple.
Yes, Apple trades at a richer multiple of 17 times this fiscal year's projected earnings, but that's a steep discount to its projected top- and bottom-line growth.
Owning Microsoft, on the other hand, is a race against time -- Father Time.
Many of Rick's fellow Fools and newsletter analysts disagree with his bearish stance on Microsoft. Where do you stand? Share your tips in the comments box below. And for more Foolish coverage on Microsoft, add the stock to My Watchlist.