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Apple Inc. Rekindles Its Rivalry With an Old Foe


Apple takes a break from bashing Google to hit back at an old and ailing opponent: Microsoft.

Just when we thought we had Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) all figured out, the company still manages to surprise us. Not only that, it surprised us in the way it surprised us.

Yesterday, Cupertino ventured upstate to San Francisco and held its annual fall press event to showcase its newly revamped iPad line as well as some incremental updates to the MacBook Pros, a brand new Mac Pro desktop, and new versions of its Mac OS X operating system and app suites.

All in all, the event was pretty lackluster, if not expectedly so. The larger iPad got a new suffix (Air, specifically) due to its slimmer, lighter design. The MacBook Pros got negligible processing upgrades that reduce the lag and stutter from previous models. And the Mac Pro, although sleekly crafted, is so prohibitively and mind-bogglingly expensive at $2,999 that it would be hard to justify buying one even taking the pesky Apple Tax into consideration.

When it came to the hardware debuts, nothing especially stood out from the pre-conference predictions -- neither in announcement nor spec. However, a few unforeseen revelations came from the unlikeliest place: software.

(See more: At Apple, Investors Still See Evolution, Not Revolution)

Now, for the past few years, Apple's flagship and best-selling device has been its iPhone, which has also dictated who the company would consider its chiefest rival. We're so used to hearing Apple's top brass sniping at Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) over issues like fragmentation and app numbers that it's hard to remember the company ever having a bigger foe. But with a few changes to software availability, as well as a number of cutting remarks over sales, Apple effectively rekindled its rivalry with an old and ailing opponent: Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT).

Continuing its tradition with a new desktop OS version each year, Apple announced the immediate availability of the terribly named Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks to the public. The last few upgrades have been very reasonably priced, with Snow Leopard and Lion costing $29 and the price of last year's Mountain Lion dropping to $19. However, Mavericks has lived up to its nonconformist moniker by having a shelf price of nothin'. That's right: The upgrade to the latest Mac OS X version is being treated like an iOS or Android update and is absolutely free to the end user.

This makes Microsoft Windows the only desktop operating system that costs the user anything to own.

Apple engineering VP Craig Federighi commemorated the occasion on stage by saying, "The days of spending hundreds of dollars to get the most from your computer are gone," which is a not-so-subtle jab at Redmond. The mobile landscape has shaped and led where computers will take us, and the idea of paying for an OS is absolutely antiquated. Aside from the frequent early adoption bugs, Apple has eliminated the excuse not to upgrade -- which stands in stark contrast with the millions of people hesitant to run Windows 8.

Speaking of antiquated, when was the last time you paid for a word processing app suite? With the number of free, open-sourced, and multi-platformed desktop apps, like OpenOffice and LibreOffice -- not to mention the increasingly powerful and reliable Google app suite -- there's been little reason to fork over any money for Microsoft Office.

(See more: Three Investing Experts on Apple's Many Smart Decisions... and One Mistake)

Well, Apple apparently saw where the users were headed and, in an effort to stem the tide to free alternatives, the company up and decided to make its iWork suite free for Mac and iOS users. "Others would have you spend a small fortune every year just to get their apps," Apple services VP Eddy Cue said next to a screen bearing the obscenely high $99 subscription fee to run Office 365 on an iPhone. And with iPhone slowly and steadily replacing BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) on the mobile enterprise front, Apple could corner the market on work productivity, wiping out the headway Microsoft has made over the last few decades.

As we've seen before, Apple's not above kicking a competitor when it's down, but the biggest jab at Redmond seemed a bit cruel.

As he geared up to introduce the new iPads, CEO Tim Cook laid into the admittedly poor decisions that Microsoft has made under Steve Ballmer's leadership. Although he didn't mention any company by name, it didn't take long for the audience to realize Cook was referring to Microsoft and not Google.

"Our competition is different: They're confused," Cook said. "They chased after netbooks. Now they're trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they'll do next? I can't answer that question, but I can tell you that we're focused."

The products in question, of course, are the Microsoft Surface tablets -- which have languished in sales numbers and market share compared to the iPad and Android devices -- and the fumbled integration with Windows 8. True to Cook's words, Microsoft's latest OS can't really decide if its touchscreen Metro interface or the classic Windows desktop is its default. Versatile, multi-purpose interfaces are one thing, but it would seem Windows 8 botched them both. So it's not surprising that the experiment hasn't paid off with adoption rates, but for Apple, it's like shooting Kins in a barrel to go after the company for that.

Overall, yesterday's event featured many similarities to the ho-hum -- some might even say "boring" -- iPhone 5S/5C unveiling. But it bore enough unexpected turns and corporate jabs to keep us on our toes.

And everyone loves seeing two old adversaries go at it again.

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