Down in the comments section to my previous post on how Microsoft isn’t copying Apple I mentioned that you just didn’t see very much anti-Mac FUD these days. The old myths and nonsense just doesn’t seem to have the same bite to it – and it’s more often than not the Mac users who are doing the FUDing.
Someone seems determined to prove me wrong, and that someone is Rob Enderle. It should be noted, for the record, that I enjoy what Rob writes, and there are occasions when he’s right about Apple. But in his piece on Windows Vista: The Final Countdown Begins, Rob spouts what can only be described as "a load of nonsense" about the impact of Vista on Apple.
In 1995 Apple was nearly shut down by a product that wasn’t as visually exciting as Apple’s on hardware that was a pale image of what Apple had on the market.
In 1995, Apple made a profit of $424 million, which is an interesting definition of "shut down". The point that Rob is trying to make is, of course, about the years immediately after, when Apple went into something of a spiral, not returning to profit until 1998.
But the problem wasn’t that Apple was suddenly eclipsed by a better competitor: it was that Apple was making a particular expensive and crappy bunch of products, in an exceptionally confusing product line. During 1995, the company released no fewer than 36 different models of Mac. In 1998, it had cut that number to 5 – and the key one was the all-important iMac, which, alongside the PowerBook G3, revived Apple’s fortunes. Unsurprisingly, the company returned to profit that year, and has really not looked back since. It’s even, recently, started growing its market share.
That’s not to say that Windows 95 wasn’t better than Windows 3.1 (it was, considerably). It undoubtedly cost Apple some sales, because for some people it was "good enough". But to say that it "nearly shut Apple down" is overblown, at best.
But Windows 95 had more application support and where it lagged Apple the vast majority of buyers found it to be good enough. For this round Vista in many ways is equal to or better than Tiger or more advanced, relatively speaking, than Windows 95 was during its beta period.
There are, undoubtedly, areas where Vista leapfrogs Tiger (and, given that this means increased competition, that’s no bad thing). However, since the Windows 95 Vs Mac OS 7 era, the two companies have diverged in terms of how they release operating system updates, to such an extent that you’re now comparing Apples with, erm, Oranges.
In the System 7 era, both Apple and Microsoft worked on the "big, occasional release" system. Every four or five years, the companies would update their OS’ with a large "1.0" release that changed virtually everything. On the Mac side, we moved from System 6 (released in 1988) to System 7 (1991). Windows went from Windows 3.0 (1990) to Windows 95 (1995). Between times, there really wasn’t much in the way of major updates going on.
Today, however, things are different. Although Microsoft still favours the monolithic update system, where the OS changes radically every few years, Apple has shifted to a "Significant 0.1" update cycle, where every new 0.1 update – from 10.1 to 10.2, for example – brings significant new features. For example, Mac OS X 10.2 – Jaguar – added a complete new graphics subsystem (Quartz Extreme), Rendezvous, a revamped Finder, Sherlock, and CUPS. Combine the updates, and it effectively means that every couple of years you’ve been getting a vastly changed operating system.
Why does this matter? First, it means that another release of OS X – Leopard, probably to be known as 10.5 – will hit the shelves a little before Vista does, allowing Apple to regain the ground that it otherwise might have lost. But more importantly, it means that around a year after Vista’s release, there will be another release of OS X that pushes it further ahead. And 18 months later, another release. And so on.
Of course, Microsoft could itself change to this model. But I have yet to see any indication that it will, and – it could be argued – it might be impossible for it to do so. Unlike Apple, Microsoft has many thousands of combinations of hardware on which to test its OS. It has desktops, laptops, tablets; a vast range of graphic chip sets, processors, and motherboards; it has 32-bit and 64-bit machines; and so on. Attempting to move to an 18-month major upgrade cycle would be ambitious at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst.
I’m really looking forward to Vista. I think it will be great news for Windows users. But to think that it will be ahead of Mac OS X – at least for long – is to willfully ignore the history of Windows and the Mac, and of Apple and Microsoft.
As for hardware, unlike 1995, the hardware OEMs not only cover a broader range with companies like Voodoo and Alienware in the mix, but historically staid companies like Gateway, HP, Acer, and even Dell are much more aggressive on design today, often surpassing Apple, which was preeminent in this area in the 90s.
Anyone who thinks that Apple no longer has the edge on design is either deluded, or really likes ugly boxes. Machines like the Mac Mini still lead the pack, both in terms of the daring of their design and the attention to detail that marks out truly great designs from mediocre imitations. Apple designs and designers win awards (like Jonathan Ive’s designer of the year gong from 2003) not just for their adventurous nature, but because almost no one else in the computer space is doing anything that’s anywhere near as good.
While this design parity clearly hasn’t impacted the iPod market
yet it is incredibly evident in the PC space.
I’d love to know where. A Dell XPS M170 still looks nothing like a patch on a PowerBook (even though the Dell is by far the better computer in terms of performance). Alienware’s machines, powerful as they are, still look like they were designed by a 14 year old boy with a fixation for cars. And anyone who thinks that the Area 51 5300 is as good looking as a Mac Mini needs to report to their nearest eye hospital, pronto.
Apple will have to improve its game sharply to compete. However, given the strength at the back end, strength that Apple has never had, the exposure now goes well beyond Apple’s available resources.
Apple’s available resources, it should be mentioned, include:
- An advanced operating system based on open source code that’s more reliable and more secure than anything Microsoft currently has.
- The best industrial design team in the computer world.
- Domination of the portable music player market, with a brand that’s so strong that the biggest danger it faces is genericization.
- The dominant share of the market for music sold online – so dominant, in fact, that some have called for its investigation as a monopoly.
- $8 billion in the bank. In cash.
Yes, Microsoft has huge reserves of strength. But it also has to spread that strength across many markets, from server operating systems and back-end systems to the Xbox. Yes, Gates is a genius. But, as the past few years have proved, he’s having to spread his attention across a lot, and it spreads very thinly. With the iPod, Apple has proved that Microsoft can be beaten, just as Google has done so in Internet search. Even with its huge resources.
This means Apple will have to partner to avoid what may be the most damaging competitive threat the company has ever faced. While possible, Apple’s one prevailing weakness has been their inability to partner and unless that changes we should be able to call the outcome of this competition relatively easily — and it isn’t positive for Apple.
Here, I think, is the only point that Rob makes that’s actually correct. Apple is, and always has been, a lousy partner. But even so, that hasn’t doomed it so far – and I see no evidence that it will in the short-term future. Come on Rob, if you’re going to argue Apple is doomed, at least give us some decent arguments!