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Battle plan: Apple vs. Microsoft vs. Google

In the last few weeks, the tech industry's biggest players have shown off their newest software and hardware, all aiming to make big moves before the end of the year. Apple has iOS 6 and the new MacBook Pros, Microsoft unveiled the new Surface and is preparing Windows 8 for launch, and Google has shown off the new version of Android and entered the tablet game.

It should be much more exciting than last year. What did 2011 have? A spec bump on the iPhone and iPad, a slow warming to the Windows Phone ecosystem, and the lackluster launches of a social network and (failed) desktop platform by Google. By comparison, 2012 should be a battle royale.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that doesn't grant reporters privileged access to Microsoft products and services, nor does it influence their opinion of them.)

Let's look at what each company has in store:

Apple
Big changes are afoot this year: a truly new iPhone is expected, sure, but June's announcements already telegraphed their intentions: a return to the high end, and freezing out Google.

After aggressively pricing almost all their hardware via partnerships and ruthless negotiation with manufacturers, Apple has managed to push its products down from luxury to the mainstream. The iPhone is now considered a standard device, and the MacBook Air, once incredibly overpriced, is now setting the bar for PC laptops.

This has given Apple the market share to start selling extremely expensive things again, starting with the Retina MacBook Pro. Soon there will likely be a 13-inch version as well, and they will both sell like hotcakes — even at around $2,000 per unit. The cheapest new iPhone will probably still cost $200 to consumers, but only because Verizon and AT&T will have no choice but to subsidize it.

iOS 6 is on its way as well, and it's evident that Apple is using its mobile platform as both carrot and stick. Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and more are getting the red carpet treatment, integrated right into the OS. But Google is getting the cold shoulder as Apple moves to its own maps and tries to get users to ask Siri instead of Google.

What could go wrong? If Google's Android OS was more mature and more evenly upgraded (that is, less "fragmented"), it could pose a threat to Apple's near-monopoly in the hugely profitable paid-apps ecosystem. And Apple is still lagging behind in cloud services, losing out on many fronts — including file sharing and storage, streaming media, email and Web apps — to Google, Microsoft, and smaller companies. Apple can only keep you attached to their services if those services are competitive, and the competition is moving faster than they are. And be honest: iOS and OS X are both starting to look a bit old.

Microsoft
The year 2012 will be looked on as a watershed moment in the company's history: Windows 8 is the biggest change ever made to the world's most popular OS, and opinions are in no way unanimous on the new look and feel. But Microsoft hopes to build on their success in the living room and make Windows and Xbox an ecosystem families and friends can live in, not just a set of isolated products.

The Surface tablet is Microsoft's way of telling the world that it's ready to move on from the desktops and laptops that put the company where it is today. And Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft learning from its mobile OS mistakes and saying "this time for real." The next Xbox isn't ready, but you'd better believe it's being conceived as the third piece in this puzzle.

Connecting the TV, PC and mobile (the so-called "three screens" strategy) has ever been a hope of Microsoft's, but it's not until now that the company's had the presence on the TV, the credibility on mobile, and the audacity to actually change what constitutes a PC. This year and the next will be a crucible for the company as it is forced to abandon traditions and partners, but if it's going to remain a force in consumer tech, these are necessary steps.

Plenty could go awry, though, and if one piece fails, the others are weakened. Windows 8 could fail to gain traction as a replacement for Windows 7, to which many millions of people and companies have only recently switched. Leaving behind 10 or 20 years of applications and hardware isn't something small businesses and casual computer users are likely to do.

Similarly, Windows Phone 8 will have a lot to prove when it debuts, first because the platform may have lost the support of many early adopters by not fully upgrading devices currently running Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, and second because Microsoft may simply not have the superstar hardware that will be needed to take consumers' eyes off the next iPhone.

Google
The challenge Google will be facing is presenting a single aspect to the consumer. There are 10 different versions of Android out there by 10 different manufacturers, all getting updates at the whim of the carriers. Meanwhile, the Chrome browser is coming out for iPad, and yet Google is making its own laptop OS and its own Android tablets, and trying to one-up Facebook with a proprietary social network, too? Every corner of the tech world seems to have a different Google, focused on a different task. Android 4.1 is the company's way of roping everything back together.

With one OS for tablets and phones, a plea to developers and partners to get on board, and a new tablet that sets a high bar for a budget product, Google is trying to unify a core brand after its initial meteoric rise and sprawl.

Another goal seems to be having one big Google that looks more or less the same wherever you go, and from whichever device you use. Chrome syncs tabs between devices, sure, but ultimately what Google wants is for you to think of Google as a place, not a set of services and websites. One place that you can view from multiple windows — your phone, your TV, your PC and, at some point, your vision overlay device, such as Google Glass.

In order for that to happen, though, Google has to make its world look, act and respond in a similar way no matter where you are. No small task when there are huge differences in interface, connectivity and screen size. Not to mention hardware partners like Samsung and HTC putting custom interfaces all over the place. (Those overlays are probably not going to survive for much longer, by the way.)

Unfortunately for Google, too much of this is out of the company's control. The very nature of open systems like Android prevents Google from yielding to this kind of unifying influence, and companies may (as Amazon did) simply take what they want and tell Google to go fly a kite. So Google needs cooperation from its friends in turning its patchwork systems and platforms into a single powerful, useful and affordable one.

What will happen?
How it will likely play out is this: Google and Microsoft will both take a hit as they regroup and put their weight behind their new unifying efforts. This will be because they have to build up brand and trust over again.

Meanwhile Apple will continue to dominate in hardware, selling iOS and OS X devices by the million, but even its most dedicated customers must acknowledge that both operating systems aren't as fresh as they used to be.

So while it'll be another year of big sales for Apple, you'll see a creeping discontent with its software offerings. A full overhaul will be due — maybe even overdue — by June of next year, when Apple again gathers its global cadre of developers. But by that time, who knows? Maybe Google and Microsoft will have gotten their acts together, and the sparks of their own reinventions will be catching fire.