There’s been lots of talk about how Apple’s market cap is about to equal Microsoft’s. People love to discuss this because of the battle the two companies have fought over the past 3 decades. Microsoft famously beat out Apple for PC dominance in the 80’s and 90’s by being open while Apple remained stubbornly closed. Today, many people look at the Android/iPhone battle in the same light: one company with a superior product (Apple) and another that may be less polished but open to be used on other people’s hardware (Google’s Android)
I’ve heard quite often over the past year how Apple is crazy to go down the same path again. However, i read a good summary today by Mark Sigal on O’Reilly’s blog about why this isn’t the case. His five main points are:
- Retail Distribution: During the PC Wars, everything came down to distribution and presence on limited retail shelf space. To be successful, you had to be on the shelves of retailers like ComputerLand, CompUSA, Circuit City, Office Depot and MicroAge. Given the wide variety of hardware OEMs making Wintel-based PCs, both shelf-space for Macs and the technical know-how to sell them were severely limited, making a differentiation story like Apple’s a hard sell. Today, Apple Stores drive a superior environment for consumers to experience hardware hands-on and get educated about the full breadth of Apple products. An aside, this is a consumer touch point that Google absolutely lacks.
- Pricing overhang: A primary reason for Apple’s crushing defeat by Microsoft was Apple’s misguided notion that it could charge grossly higher dollars for Mac products than Windows-based PC offerings. Contrast this with the present, where Apple is consistent in their assertion and awareness that it cannot and will not leave pricing overhang (i.e. a sufficient pricing gap between its products and the competition). This avoids the past dynamic where consumers saw picking Apple products as an either/or decision, in terms of price vs premier experience. iPod, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad all have followed this course.
- Developer ecosystem: It is a truism that in platform plays he who wins the hearts and minds of developers, wins the war. In the PC era, Apple forgot this, bungling badly by launching and abandoning technology initiatives, co-opting and competing with their developers and routinely missed promised milestones. By contrast, Microsoft provided clear delineation points for developers, integrated core technologies across all products, and made sure developer tools readily supported these core initiatives. No less, Microsoft excelled at ensuring that the ecosystem made money. Lesson learned, Apple is moving on to the 4.0 stage of its mobile platform, has consistently hit promised milestones, has done yeomen’s work on evangelizing key technologies within the platform (and third-party developer creations – “There’s an app for that”), and developed multiple ways for developers to monetize their products. No less, they have offered 100 percent distribution to 85 million iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads, and one-click monetization via same. Nested in every one of these devices is a giant vending machine that is bottomless and never closes. By contrast, Google has taught consumers to expect free, the Android Market is hobbled by poor discovery and clunky, inconsistent monetization workflows. Most damning, despite touted high-volume third-party applications, there are (seemingly) no breakout third-party developer successes, despite Android being around two-thirds as long as the iPhone platform.
- Consumer technology adoption: During the PC era, large enterprises essentially dictated the industry winners by virtue of standardizing on a given vendor or type of solution. This created a winner-takes-all dynamic, inasmuch as consumers would ultimately buy the same solutions that had been blessed by large enterprises. By virtue of its conservative nature (remember the motto, “No ever got fired for buying IBM”?), staid Microsoft always felt like a safer choice than crazy Apple. And besides, accounting could solicit bids from multiple hardware vendors, which they liked. By contrast, today’s breakthrough adoption begins in the consumer realm and filters back to enterprises, not the other way around.
- Microsoft-like resilience: I remember too well the Microsoft mantra “Embrace-Extend-Extinguish,” which basically meant that any segment worth owning Microsoft would ultimately dominate by the 3.0 version of its competing product. They were ruthless in squeezing the lifeblood out of competitors through any means necessary. But, give Microsoft full props for manifesting an unyielding resilience to keep working its product offering and market assault until victory was at hand. Considering Apple’s rise from the ashes to re-create a very profitable Mac business — the dominance it has created with iPod and iTunes; the powerhouse iPhone and iPhone platform and the ambitious, and already well-regarded iPad — does anyone wonder about Apple’s resilience? By contrast, Google remains almost completely dependent upon search and advertising, despite launching so many new product offerings and seriously pursuing M&A over the past several years. Arguably, Google’s famously loosely coupled structure leads to a lot of seeds being planted, but so too, it seems to a less than laser-like focus on seeing those seeds to cultivation and full harvest. It begs the question, “Can a tiger change its stripes?”
I carry around both an iPhone and a Droid so I’m witness the battle every day when i pull both out and decide which to make a call or text on. They are both good phones. The Android phones get refreshed every month when a new manufacturer comes out with the latest, whereas i have to wait a year for each new iPhone. That said, the iPhone is better and because of points 1-5 above, i suspect Apple will clean house for at least a few more years.