Apple and Google are ahead of Microsoft in key markets, but Microsoft chairman Bill Gates hopes to take them from behind.

"At any point in our history, we've had competitors who were better at doing something," Gates told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "underscoring the fact that it wouldn't be unprecedented to come from behind now".

Apple's 'fantastic job'

He concedes that Apple has done "a fantastic job" in music and also describes Google as the "far-away leader" in Web search. On the latter point, Gates says: "Big honeymoon for them. Even if they do 'me, too' type stuff, people think, 'wow.'"

The Microsoft head honcho also looks at Nokia and Sony as competitors with a lead on his firm, "because of the breadth of what we do".

The wide-ranging interview also looks at Microsoft's multiple strategies, as it tries to expand its business beyond its profitable operating system and Office software markets.

Microsoft's global effect

On Office 12 he states: "Well, this is the world's most popular application, and people sit and use it hours and hours a day, and so any advance we make in Office can actually drive up global productivity in a significant way."

The Redmond company still has its own teeth, he warns: "In those areas where somebody else has done well, that's great. We'll match what they do, we'll bring new things to it, do it better and integrate it in with other things. And so it's very healthy for the consumer. We see that in search, we see it in music. It's not new at all that that's out there."

Gates also reveals that Microsoft's settlement with the US Depatement of Justice over its anti-trust violations isn't "preventing us from being very, very innovative" in Windows Vista.