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Originally published March 7, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 7, 2010 at 10:34 PM

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Brier Dudley

Apple, Microsoft warming up to each other

You don't often hear Microsoft's Steve Ballmer gushing about Apple, but he was sure being nice to his Cupertino, Calif., rival last week. Microsoft and Apple are reportedly close to adding Bing search to the iPhone, and Ballmer's praise of Apple's App Store may be another sign that the companies' frosty relationship is thawing.

Seattle Times staff columnist

You don't often hear Microsoft's chief executive gushing about Apple, but Steve Ballmer was sure being nice to his Cupertino, Calif., rival last week.

In front of a packed house at the University of Washington's computer-science building, Ballmer called out the great work Apple has done on its App Store for mobile applications.

"Apple's done a very nice job that allows people to monetize and commercialize their intellectual property," he said.

The comment alone may not be a big deal. Microsoft executives from Bill Gates on down have said nice things about the iPhone, for instance.

But Ballmer's statement was deliberate, and it comes as Microsoft and Apple are reportedly close to adding Bing search to the iPhone. BusinessWeek on Jan. 19 reported the companies were in extended talks about replacing Google as the iPhone's default search service.

So I'm taking Ballmer's App Store praise as another sign the relationship between Microsoft and Apple is warming.

This inconvenient truth could lead to unusual changes in the tech-industry climate this year and force people to reconsider their preconceptions.

Microsoft and Apple always have had a love-hate relationship that's much deeper and more complicated than the Hatfield-McCoy sniping their fans engage in.

Every now and then, the billionaires in charge give a glimpse of their true feelings, such as the emotional conversation Gates and Steve Jobs had on stage at a Wall Street Journal conference in 2007.

" 'You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.' That's clearly true here," Jobs told Gates, quoting from the Beatles' song "Two of Us."

That was before it was clear to both companies that Google was becoming their biggest competitor.

Apple is coming off a tough divorce from its young search partner, which is now selling its own touch-screen smartphone and has floated concept designs of an iPad-like tablet device. So perhaps it's natural Apple is reaching out to an estranged friend from the early days.

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"Both firms to a certain extent feel like Google's stealing from them; I think that's driven the two firms closer together," said Rob Enderle, a Silicon Valley consultant and analyst.

Microsoft is amenable to better relations, in part because it has found its product footing, Enderle said. Windows 7 is a hit, and the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 phones have been well-received. As a result, Microsoft no longer feels skunked by the iPhone.

Another shift could be personal, coming after Jobs was sidelined last year with a liver transplant that followed his battle with pancreatic cancer.

After going through that sort of thing, people can be less combative and more appreciative of old friends, Enderle said.

"Jobs is feeling his mortality, and Ballmer and Jobs go back a ways," he said.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment on whether there's a new dynamic between the companies.

After Ballmer's speech, I followed him out to his Lincoln and asked if anything has changed. Is there an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" thing going on?

Ballmer just smiled, said he couldn't answer that one and climbed into the car.

Microsoft's point man in Silicon Valley, former Apple executive Dan'l Lewin, said he had nothing to add.

"I think Steve just calls it like it is," he said.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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