As a younger man, the late Steve Jobs was never afraid to bad-mouth the competition. But over the past decade Apple -- and also Jobs in his kinder years leading up to his death -- have taken the high road, accentuating the company's own positives over a rival's negatives.
Ok that's not totally true. There was the famous PC vs. Mac TV ads where Apple openly derided Microsoft and Windows PCs. But by and large the ultra-confident Apple has always led with its own innovation first and foremost. Why bother mentioning all the middling wannabes?
But Apple is a different company now in 2013, no longer miles ahead of everybody else and getting a little touchy about it.
Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller went uncharacteristically off-script this week, getting quite defensive in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the eve of this week's launch of Samsung's Galaxy S4 Android smartphone. Schiller criticized Google (and Samsung) for weak security, for allowing older versions of Android to run on phones and for the fragmentation common among Android hardware.
"When you take an Android device out of the box, you have to sign up to nine accounts with different vendors to get the experience iOS comes with," he is quoted as saying. "They don't work seamlessly together."
Apple, Schiller reiterates, is responsible for the mobile hardware and the operating system, as if we'd all somehow forgotten that Apple controls the whole product (and has been doing so for 30 years).
Veteran tech analyst Rob Enderle calls Schiller's comments a strategic mistake.
"Schiller is clearly sweating the Samsung launch as he tries to disparage the Android platform. When an executive attacks a competing platform rather than focusing people on the problems the executive is showcasing they and their company are worried, which tends to get people looking at the competing platform more than they otherwise would."
Microsoft is another tech giant in attack mode against Google. Microsoft's "Scroogled" ad campaign running across TV, the Web and newspapers for the past few months paints Gmail and Google as evil services that spy on your private emails and search queries with the sole purpose of selling ads.
The Scroogled ads, although humorous and thought-provoking, came under fire for making Microsoft look desperate. The strategy of ridiculing a rival's flaws instead of emphasizing your own strengths may work in politics where the truth is, shall we say, flexible, but it doesn't work in technology.
It definitely didn't help Microsoft's cause earlier this week when Outlook.com experienced a 16-hour outage due to a data center firmware update.
You could argue that Google has been a thorn in Microsoft's side for at least five years (Since Google Apps stirred up the productivity space, and Microsoft got serious with search via Bing) and has been really hassling Apple for the last three years (since Android became a threat to the iPhone and iPad).
But lately Google, whether through search and email dominance or through Android on mobile, has made its way into the bloodstream of these two tech titans.
Microsoft and Apple are certainly out there endorsing its products with no mention of the competition. It's not all Google bashing. Yet the Scroogled campaign and the Schiller comments remind us that when tech companies gripe publicly about competitors, the world sees a company that is worried and insecure. It feels like a last resort. And only a company as annoyingly effective as Google could push two kings of industry like Apple and Microsoft to the edge like this.
What do you think? Is Google's success driving Microsoft and Apple to make bad PR decisions?