A decade ago, Apple was a niche company with niche products whose demise in the face of the Wintel axis was routinely predicted. The company’s computer products were overpriced and uninspiring, especially to directors of corporate IT departments who depended upon mind-numbing complexity to protect their livelihoods. Capable desktop publishing platforms for those who got into that sort of thing. Artists, you know. But the Beta/VHS wars had replayed themselves, and most people had come to the conclusion – some reluctantly – that real work was done on a Windows machine. And games of course. There were so many more games ported to Microsoft’s OS than to the Mac.
Last week the NYT broke news that a decade ago – how much has changed everywhere in this most turbulent decade? – would have been unthinkable:
Wall Street has called the end of an era and the beginning of the next one: The most important technology product no longer sits on your desk but rather fits in your hand.
The moment came Wednesday when Apple, the maker of iPods, iPhones and iPads, shot past Microsoft, the computer software giant, to become the world’s most valuable technology company.
This changing of the guard caps one of the most stunning turnarounds in business history for Apple, which had been given up for dead only a decade earlier, and its co-founder and visionary chief executive, Steven P. Jobs. The rapidly rising value attached to Apple by investors also heralds an important cultural shift: Consumer tastes have overtaken the needs of business as the leading force shaping technology.
There are many combined and intermingled threads that led to this. It would be too easy, for example, to draw a straight line from the iPod – a revolutionary adaptation from a human systems interface perspective to the evolutionary design of digital music players – to an iTunes store that made purchasing digital media easy, to laptops and desktops that went from quirky symbols of anti-corporate individualism to devices that were at once ubiquitous yet hip.
Too, computers today are much more than gaming devices or spreadsheet calculators, they are an access portal to the entire world, parts of which have dark and sinister byways. “Security through obscurity,” Wintel mavens croaked, but to those forced to purchase annual subscriptions to anti-virus solutions that were always just a step behind pimpled teenagers in their parents’ basements and hard eyed hackers in Belarus and Beijing, obscurity sounded like a pretty good deal if security came along with.
High end users of Wintel machines and software developers continued to protest that Apple kept too vigorous a stranglehold on innovation by insisting that they adapt to the company’s tightly integrated hardware and software architecture rather than open it up . But the vast majority of us only want to use our machines out of the box, and no one much cares for a Blue Screen of Death: College kids could cobble together an Intel or AMD processor with a hard drive pre-installed with Windows and add peripherals, video cards and drivers and sell them to friends at a fraction of the cost of a high end Mac desktop only to have the whole, trembling house of cards come crashing down with the next software update. And Apple’s machines themselves, from the old Mac I to the iPad have always had a design focus that centered on the user experience and delightful aesthetics – something beyond the control of Microsoft, which became predominantly an OS and application vendor, fitful and reactive responses like the ill-fated Zune aside.
Nor is Apple resting on its laurels:
A tip we’ve received — which has been confirmed by a source very close to Apple — details the outlook for the next version of the Apple TV, and it’s a doozy. According to our sources, this project has been in the works long before Google announced its TV solution, and it ties much more closely into Apple’s mobile offerings. The new architecture of the device will be based directly on the iPhone 4, meaning it will get the same internals, down to that A4 CPU and a limited amount of flash storage — 16GB to be exact — though it will be capable of full 1080p HD (!). The device is said to be quite small with a scarce amount of ports (only the power socket and video out), and has been described to some as “an iPhone without a screen.” Are you ready for the real shocker? According to our sources, the price-point for the device will be $99. One more time — a hundred bucks.
This is really a very new twist on a a very old story: Innovate or die.
Throughout the late 90′s Apple was forced to reinvent itself, changing architectures and adapting itself to the realities of the Windows dominated world. You’d have searched in vain for a Windows machine that could open or even acknowledge a Macintosh document, but the Mac platform was quite happy to provide translators going the other way. The move towards a native, UNIX based architecture was made in favor of stability but it was technically risky because the company had to leave doorway open – at least for a while – to legacy, PowerPC based systems or else risk aggravating their loyal fan base, perhaps terminally. But that final move was critical: In my field I work closely with network engineers and PhD software developers. Increasingly I see them coming to work with MacBook Pro laptops under their arms, even as the cube drones enviously build PowerPoint slides on their clunky Windows boxes. The Intel architecture combined with Boot Camp ensured that no PC game enthusiast would ever have to be without the latest first-person shoot ‘em up.
Finally, while everyone else was talking about convergence, the iPhone became an instant hit, if not quite a category killer. When the iPod arrived on scene there were other digital music devices on the market before Apple seized it by the throat, so too were there other mobile devices which combined telephony with web access and maybe a calculator. The key is not necessarily to be first to market, but early and revolutionary with an embedded evolutionary upgrade path already in mind.
If you’re a distant second place in a two-vendor market, you can either gracefully slide into the pages of history or else continue to reinvent yourself. For what it’s worth, I predict that Apple’s success will continue for as long as it remains psychologically the underdog, lean, agile, innovative and tolerant of tightly controlled risk in the pursuit of user-oriented delight. It’s star will wane when it becomes bloated, sedate, inward facing and complacent, characteristics which are a death knell in the marketplace.
This is a useful and object lesson for nations as well, as they compete in the marketplace of ideas.