In the days after Steve Jobs died, one of the many off-colour jokes that inevitably flood the internet at such times was a spoof conversation between the former Apple boss and his Microsoft counterpart, Bill Gates. It employed the oft-repeated device of pasting speech bubbles into photographs of the famous 2007 meeting between the two tech titans.

Jobs says, “Hey Bill, remember when I died and people started talking about me as if I were some kind of god? And then here’s you, eradicating malaria, providing clean drinking water to people in the Third World, working to improve America’s school systems and pledging to donate 90 percent of your wealth and people are just like, ‘Oh man, Bill Gates, he’s rich’.”

I won’t repeat Gates’s response in a family newspaper, but I imagine it’s something he’s wanted to say to Jobs several times over the years as he’s pondered the unfairness of the public perception gap identified in the imaginary chat.

More serious for the company he co-founded is that there’s a similar disparity in the way that consumers view the products made by Microsoft and Apple

Apple gear is seen as cool and cutting edge, while Microsoft stuff, with the notable exception of the Xbox gaming console, is perceived as dull and boring. It’s the classic hipsters versus suits divide.

There are many reasons for this and one of them was stated with commendable frankness by Microsoft South Africa’s Colin Erasmus in a visit to Durban this week: “We’ve got great products, but we’ve done a really crappy job of telling people about them.”

That’s all about to change. In the coming weeks Microsoft will launch a mega-budget, global ad campaign that it hopes will begin positioning the company in consumers’ minds as hip, happening and fun.

One of Microsoft’s marketing challenges has always been that it doesn’t make gadgets – again, the Xbox is an exception – but software that runs in gadgets. Because of this, it has understandably, if rather naively, left the marketing of those gadgets to the companies that build them.

This worked fine until Apple came along and upset the, er apple cart. Apple bypassed Microsoft’s apparently unassailable Maginot Line, the business market, and targeted consumers directly.

As iPods, Macintosh computers, notebooks and, more recently, iPhones and iPads exploded in popularity, Microsoft began to notice an alarming trend. Apple products are invading the corporate space, despite the best efforts of IT departments to keep them out of their Microsoft-centric systems.

With this in mind, Microsoft’s new ad campaign is aimed squarely at the consumer market, emphasising the fun, rather than sensible, things its software offers in a range of devices, from traditional PC and laptops to the more cutting edge cellphones, tablet computers and ultrabooks.

Erasmus says several of these new devices will hit South African stores to coincide with the marketing drive in the run-up to the lucrative holiday season.

As someone who lugs my work station around in a laptop bag, I’m particularly excited about the arrival of two new ultrabooks, the Asus UX21 and the Acer Aspire S3.

The term describes a relatively new category of laptop that crams the processing punch of higher-end computer into a sliver-thin, featherweight form factor.

Apple owned this category with its MacBook Air 11- and 13-inch computers until just a few months ago when Samsung brought out its alluring, but pricey, 900 range.

With the entry of Asus and Acer into the market, the choice has doubled overnight, although prices haven’t exactly plummeted.

The Asus is the more eye-catching of the two newcomers. Its 11.6-inch display, 128GB solid state drive and core i5 processor are encased in a stunning brushed aluminium shell just 1.7cm thick, weighing a gravity defying 1.2kg.

That’s slimmer and lighter than some magazines. Not so dinky is the recommended selling price – R11 000.

The Acer, although not quite as desirable, is probably the more practical of the two.

It’s not quite as thin and light as the Asus, but it does sport a bigger 13.3-inch screen and a 320GB conventional hard drive and a start-up from sleep time of less than two seconds. It’s also R1 000 cheaper than the Asus – though still R700 more expensive than the entry-level MacBook Air.

Look out also for a range of new tablets, smartphones and desktop PCs sporting Windows software – although you’ll probably have to wait until at least next March for the Nokia Lumia 800, the flagship collaboration between Microsoft and the once-dominant Finnish phone maker.

The Lumia 800 sports the N9’s single-piece injection-moulded polycarbonate shell and a 3.7-inch, curved Amoled screen, but ditches the dead-end Symbian-based MeeGo operating system in favour of Windows Phone.

It will be available in cyan, magenta and black.

It boasts a beefy 1.4GHz processor with hardware acceleration and a graphics processor and 16GB of internal user memory. It also has a Carl-Zeiss, f2.2 aperture camera that is designed to work well in low-light environments.

Features demonstrated at the recent Nokia World London launch include People Hub, which lets you put contacts into groups (work colleagues as opposed to, family, for example).

Each person has a photo tile next to their latest Twitter or Facebook updates, and pictures taken on the phone’s camera can be shared to Facebook and tagged from the phone.

Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents are all readable and connected to the Office hub, while the games platform is Xbox branded, as you would have expected given the Microsoft tie-in.

Another powerful drawcard is the fact that Nokia has built free navigation, music and sports applications into the Lumia 800.

All in all, it’s an impressive package. It seems, at first glance at least, that Apple’s IOS and Google’s Android operating systems have a fight on their hands at last. - Sunday Tribune

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