A little less than a year ago, Wall Street reached a Microsoft vs. Apple milestone: for the first time, Apple's corporate value surpassed Microsoft's.
And Apple's market cap (the total value of all of its shares) topped Microsoft's even though the latter company had more revenue and double the profit margins. Clearly, Wall Street was looking at growth potential, not current income statements and balance sheets, in anointing Apple the more compelling buy.
What has happened since? With Apple due to report its latest quarterly earnings tonight -- Microsoft reports its numbers next week -- we look at some recent numbers, as well as data over time.
While total values for Microsoft and Apple were close last spring, that's no longer the case. Since May 26, 2010, when Apple first inched ahead of Microsoft, Apple's market capitalization has risen from $223 billion to more than $306 billion (as of April 14). Microsoft's, meanwhile, has slipped from $219 billion to $212 billion.
Bottom line: Wall Street currently thinks more highly of Apple's growth potential and overall prospects than it does of Microsoft's. Investors were right last year, but only time can tell whether that outlook is still justified, given the company's high stock price.
Beyond Wall Street, how do the companies stack up in the battle for tech users? Microsoft maintained an overwhelming lead in the desktop operating system business, keeping a roughly 92% share of the market from 2005 to 2009 (the last figures available from IDC). Mac OS X's share has varied between just 3.5% and 4.0%.
Apple took a significant lead in the smartphone race, capturing 15.7% of the worldwide market last year, compared with just 4.2% for Microsoft. However, both Gartner and IDC predict Microsoft's Windows Phone will beat out Apple's iOS for mobile market share by 2015, with Gartner expecting a 19.5% share for Microsoft and 17.2% for Apple.
In addition, Apple had a commanding 87.4% share of the worldwide tablet market last year, according to IDC. Gartner predicts Apple will keep a 69% share this year and will still have 47% by 2015. Windows doesn't show up in that forecast.
Bottom line: In one high-growth area, smartphones, several influential analysts believe Microsoft will eventually come out on top. In another, tablets, it's getting crushed. However, Microsoft has maintained its enormous lead on the desktop.
Investment value over time
If you invested $1,000 in each company's stock on Jan. 3, 2000, what would you have ended up with in April 2011? Accounting for stock splits and, in Microsoft's case, dividends, but excluding taxes and broker's fees, you would have $2,072 from Microsoft stock and $13,294 from Apple stock.
And if you had invested $1,000 in each company on May 26 last year, your Apple stock would have been worth $1,427 in mid-April, compared with $1,033 for your Microsoft stock.
Bottom line: Apple has been by far the superior investment over the past decade.
Microsoft's fiscal year 2006 revenue was more than double Apple's FY '06 revenue: $44.3 billion to $19.3 billion. What has happened since? Apple's revenues have more than tripled, while Microsoft's have grown by less than 50%.
Bottom line: Apple's fiscal year 2010 revenue edged Microsoft's, $65.2 billion to $62.5 billion. (Note: Microsoft's fiscal year is July through June, and Apple's is October through September.)
Microsoft's profits were six times larger than Apple's in their respective 2006 fiscal years. Apple's net income has subsequently grown sevenfold, while Microsoft's has increased roughly 50%.
Bottom line: While Microsoft still generates more profits than Apple, the gap has narrowed significantly. If current trends continued -- a big if -- Apple would likely top Microsoft's profits in a couple of years.
Number of employees
Microsoft still employs substantially more people than Apple does, although the size of Microsoft's workforce has dropped a bit, from 93,000 in 2009 to 89,000 in 2010. Apple's reported headcount has been rising, with a significant jump from 34,300 in 2009 to 46,600 in 2010.
Bottom line: Apple's revenue per employee at the end of its 2010 fiscal year was substantially higher than Microsoft's: $1.4 million versus $702,000. Likewise, Apple's profits per employee were $300,429, compared with $211,236 for Microsoft.
So how do they stack up overall? Opinions aside, Apple has impressed investors much more than Microsoft has, despite the latter's considerably larger size and continued dominance on the desktop. Apple's recent ability to create category-changing (or category-creating) devices such as the iPhone and the iPad -- as it did with the iPod several years earlier -- appears to carry much more weight than Microsoft's assured, steady income stream from a maturing market. However, experts do expect Microsoft to overtake Apple in the smartphone market.
Bottom line: Those of us who thought a year ago that Apple might be overvalued have been proven wrong ... so far.