How Apple Will Lose the Mobile Computing Race

I’ve heard several people say that “Apple is the new Microsoft”. These people are wrong; dead wrong.

Apple is the new Apple. They’ve not changed in the last 20 years, not even a little bit.

Google is the new Microsoft, and Apple is going to lose the mobile device market to Google the exact same way it lost the desktop market to Microsoft 20 years ago.

How is this going to happen? First you have to know the history.

Let me tell you a little story…

Back in the 80’s there were two companies; Apple and Microsoft. Suddenly Apple comes out with a magic new product way ahead of the competition. Enter the Macintosh. The Mac was guaranteed to change personal computing forever, and everyone knew it before the Mac even hit the shelves. There was media hype and gobs of nerd excitement well in advance of the Mac’s debut. And the Mac delivered spectacularly on all of its promises.

But Apple insisted on near complete control of the entire platform; hardware and soft. They were terrified that someone else might come along and spoil the pure awesome.

Apple used deliberately unusual hardware, and controlled it with an iron fist. Only Apple and a few licensees were allowed to make Mac hardware. The 3rd party accessory market was as restricted as Apple could make it too.

Programmers could make applications for the Mac of course, but Apple maintained tight control over how applications used the hardware and interacted with the OS. Developers played in the sandbox, but it was Apple and select partners that created the majority of useful Mac software.

Apple was also territorial about who could sell their precious. Macs were distributed mostly through select retail partners. Anyone else that wanted to sell a Mac paid full retail price –which made it very hard to compete with Apple’s preferred retailers.

Because Apple had tight control end-to-end, the Mac was a very stable and reliable computer. Most of the software was also high quality, which made the Mac a joy to use.

On the other side, you had Microsoft. They weren’t really a hardware company though. They concentrated on making a decent operating system and left the hardware to other companies that specialized in that sort of thing.

There was a lot of compromise and cooperation between Microsoft and the hardware makers though, of which there were many. They created a large market with a wide range of different systems, each with different capabilities, quality, and prices. Microsoft just did what they could to make sure that Windows worked reasonably well with whatever crazy-ass hardware the other guys came up with.

Microsoft made a decent enough OS, but what they did really well was make programming languages, compilers, and development tools –all that stuff you need in order to make software for the regular folks. Microsoft made it easy to develop applications for Windows, and they stayed out of the way as much as possible. They didn’t put up a fight when developers released software to compete with Microsoft’s own, and they didn’t stop developers from extending the operating system itself in new and unusual directions.

Microsoft was later than Apple in coming out with a good GUI based OS. Windows wasn’t too pretty nor much fun compared to the Mac; especially at first. But PCs were cheaper, and came in a variety that fit different people’s needs and budgets. The most important thing was that a Windows PC could do everything that a Mac could, though not always with the elegance of the Mac. People often preferred a Mac, but they could (and did) settle for PCs instead.

In the end, what killed Apple the first time around was Apple’s own paranoia. All by itself, Apple couldn’t evolve the Mac hardware nor the OS fast enough to keep up with a young and rapidly changing personal computer market.

All Microsoft had to do was try and keep up while other companies raced forward with new ideas.

Now jump forward 20 years.

There are two companies; Apple and Google. Suddenly Apple comes out with a magic new product way ahead of the competition. Enter the iPhone. The iPhone was guaranteed to change mobile computing forever, and everyone knew it before the iPhone even hit the shelves. There was media hype and gobs of nerd excitement well in advance of the iPhone’s debut; and the iPhone delivered spectacularly on all of its promises.

But Apple insists on near complete control of the entire platform; hardware and soft. They are terrified that someone else might come along and spoil the pure awesome.

Apple uses deliberately unusual hardware, and they control it with an iron fist. Only apple is allowed to make iPhones, and the 3rd party accessory market is as restricted as Apple can make it.

Programmers can (and do) make applications for the iPhone of course, but Apple maintains near complete control over how those applications use the hardware and interact with the OS. Developers are allowed to play in the sandbox only if they use the specific tools that apple permits. Apple and a few select partners make the majority of the useful iPhone apps. Most developers that make apps to competes with Apple’s own are denied access to the app store; which is the only way users can obtain apps for the iPhone. Apple will even deny an app if they just don’t like what it does.

Apple is territorial about who sells their precious. The iPhone is (currently) only distributed through one network in the U.S., and apple exerts enormous control over how that network does business. AT&T had to wait to roll out 3G services until there was an iPhone that also supported it. There were other mobile phones sold by AT&T that had  3G support as much as a full year before, and AT&T had deployed the network hardware long before Apple’s 3G iPhone came out.

Because Apple is in such tight control, the iPhone is a very stable and reliable smartphone. Most of the software is also of high quality, which makes the iPhone a joy to use.

On the other side, you have Google. They aren’t really a hardware company though. They make a good mobile operating system, but have left most of the hardware in the hands of companies that specialized in that sort of thing.

There is a lot of compromise and cooperation between Google and the many hardware makers. They have created large market with a wide range of different Android phones with different capabilities, quality, and price. Google just does what it can to make sure the Android OS works reasonably well with whatever crazy-ass hardware the other guys come up with.

Google makes a good mobile OS, but what they do really well is provide cloud services –services developers can use to make useful mobile software for the regular folks. Google makes it easy to build applications for Android, and supply much of the cloud services free of charge. They stay out of the way as much as possible, but give developers a way to distribute software through a centralized app store, with very few restrictions. Apps can also be obtained through independent channels too. Google doesn’t put up a fight when developers release software to compete with Google’s own products, and they don’t stop developers from extending the Android OS in new and unusual directions.

Google was later than Apple with a smartphone. Android isn’t quite as pretty compared to the iPhone; though it is rapidly getting there. Android phones are cheaper, available for nearly any network, and come in a wide variety of forms to fit different people’s needs and budgets. And the important thing is that an Android Phone can do anything that an iPhone can; sometimes even with the same elegance as the iPhone. People often prefer the iPhone, but they can (and do) settle for Android phones instead.

In the end, what will kill Apple the second time around is Apple’s own paranoia. All by itself, Apple cannot evolve the iPhone fast enough to keep up a young and rapidly changing mobile computing market. Their treatment of developers is pushing them to other platforms fast.

All Google has to do is try and keep up while other hardware and software companies race forward with new ideas.

This same exact pattern of behavior is repeated with the new iPad.

The situations are so similar it is almost insane that Apple can’t see their own doom coming.

There are some major differences between now and 20 years ago, but none of them bode well for Apple.

Google is in a much more competitive position than Microsoft was 20 years ago, and Android is a much better product to pit against the iPhone than Windows was against the Mac.

Perhaps the biggest difference between now and then though is that Apple wasn’t crapping all over their software developers back then. Apple did limit developers in some ways, but never in the arrogant and insulting way they do now… and especially not through any legal or contract trickery like the iPhone developer agreement.

Apple is also much more blatantly motivated by pure monetary greed. Twenty years ago, it felt like the Mac more about a vision of excellence, making a better tomorrow, being different, and enabling new and wonderful possibilities. The iPhone today though is clearly just a cash cow. Apple’s every legal and marketing move is so transparently profit motivated that it doesn’t even fool kindergarteners.

There is no greater vision behind the iPhone like there was the Mac; behind the iPhone it’s just dollar signs, abused developers, and shackled customers.

0 Replies to “How Apple Will Lose the Mobile Computing Race”

  1. I agree with the vast majority of your points, and this is coming from a strictly Apple guy. I too worry about their sandbox approach, and most hardcore Apple fans (and especially developers) are pressuring them to change their ways.

    I have always said that a Mac is not a computer – it’s an appliance. It rarely crashes for the same reason your VCR never crashes, the reason your gaming console rarely crashes (user error aside). When you wall off the garden, you limit your problems. It’s two different approaches for two very different user bases, who have completely different needs. For this reason, as a tinkering kid, I was never attracted to the garden at all. I’ll say however, that when it comes to a phone, a walled garden makes a lot more sense. This isn’t something I want to “just work”, it’s something I /need/ to “just work”.

    My “need to tinker” pain is eased a lot by jailbreaking. It turns iOS from a terrible walled garden to the most customizable OS ever.. arguably even moreso than Android. This has allowed the community, while small, to correct the glaring issues with iOS, and due to frameworks like MobileSubstrate, they do it extremely fast in a plugin-type fashion, sometimes having innovative features like Blackberry 10’s suggestive “octopus” keyboard on iOS long before they ever saw the light of day on their originally intended platform.

    The problem with Apple is, even though they have repeatedly stolen ideas from the jailbreak community, they ironically haven’t done it enough, or fast enough. Apple is not only falling behind the competition, they’re not even keeping up with us.. which is ridiculous. If Apple were smart, they’d not just steal a couple of jailbreakers’ ideas, they’d steal damn near all of them, and while we might bitch about who deserves credit, it would ultimately make us want to jailbreak less. Instead, Apple concentrates efforts on things like an iOS 7 anti-skeumorphism redesign in an effort to spice things up, and does things like completely disallowing a traditional “restore” or “downgrade”, instead FORCING old devices to update to new software should anything ever go wrong, despite the unavoidable drop in performance by doing so. These actions are direct counters of jailbreaking, as forcing an install of an old version on your phone was never an easy thing to do in the first place – your typical user would always be coaxed into updating instead. This is a direct shot to those of us that know what we’re doing and prefer to stay on an old firmware, and us – the ones who are arguably driving more iOS innovation than apple – are the ONLY people it hurts.

    We hope one day Apple will see the light and embrace the best of both worlds. Even if I have to click through 10 “REALLY – YOU SHOULDN’T DO THIS” dialogs, if I know what I’m doing, if it’s my phone, and it’s now my sole responsibility and out of warranty – let me modify what I like.

    1. I’ve watched apple for years, and they have always been very consistent in their business practices. Even during the years when Jobs was in exile, they kept the same generally paranoid style of development and innovation. Given that much history, I would not expect to see them open up in any meaningful way. Instead, I suspect their downward spiral to follow a pattern similar to Oracle.

      Apple’s current products, like the Mac of the 80’s, can’t keep pace with more open markets using just their own internal talent. Microsoft and its hardware partners were able to eventually build a better machine than Apple in the 90s because of their embrace of the huge industry around their core system. We are starting to see the same now as Android leaps forwards with (most) every new release while iPhone and iPad increment along in an ever-deaccelerating upgrade cycle.

      As Apple loses steam, and begins to truly lose ground (which will happen next year, by my prediction), they are more likely to begin Oracalizing thier business strategy… and by that I mean hiring a new lawyer to replace every one of their fleeing developers and engineers.

      Now that Jobs is gone (he wasn’t when I wrote the article), there is the small possibility that they might open up… but I’ve seen little evidence of it yet. They pretty much gave up on the server products completely, and have also conceded defeat on the workstation class systems when they eliminated the 17″ MacBook Pro and consumerized the 15″ model into an inflexible, un-upgradable appliance laptop. This is consistent with my predictions.

      The best way I can put it is this… Apple is/was supposedly the most valuable computer company on the planet, but they only sell three meaningful products… consumer laptops, consumer tablets, and consumer phones.

      1. Due to the average user’s need for the phone as an appliance, and frankly, preferring looks and app quality over specs, I don’t see the market shifting in terms of phones any time soon. Even when Android phones are clearly superb, (they already are more often than not in specs alone) the iPhone has become a status symbol because they did it first and even because they cost more. On top of that, their stringent App Store policies, while abhorrent to developers and geeks of all kinds, do simplify things up for the masses of dumbasses, and require a quality consistency which I get to enjoy. On Android where I can really never tell what the ‘back’ button is going to do, or even which one will actually take me back, it leaves me feeling uncertain about what to press – and that’s never good for dumb end users.

        For the forseeable future, those who can afford it (or can’t), will probably continue to prefer iPhones, especially with the Apple lock-in and yearly release mentality. Only thing Android has going for it currently as far as consumers are concerned is price.

        All the technical jargon is way above 99.5% of the market’s head. Easy, pretty, and cheap is all that matters.

        1. I don’t doubt that a lot of that is true. Apple will, for a while, maintain their position as the premium phone. They may manage to maintain their image as the premium supplier well after their products no longer deserve it… that was also the case with the Mac well into the 90’s. I still think Android will completely overshadow apple in the near future.

          The biggest threat to the iPhone’s perceived top-dog status is credibly threatened by the Samsung Galaxy series though, but the most bizarre threat (and one I would not have predicted) is actually coming from the Nokia Lumia 920/928.

          I have no idea why, but a LOT of hipsters in my local area just dumped their iPhone for the new Verizon 928. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Microsoft developer, but even I haven’t thought too highly of the Windows Phone platform yet… I think it does have more potential than Android or iPhone, but MS has not done a good job of executing on that potential yet… and developers are still quite shy about the platform. So I am at a loss to explain why I’m suddenly seeing so damned many Lumias at the local Starbucks… hell… I’ve even seen a few at the Waffle House now.

          That “underdog” marketing strategy Microsoft is spinning for Windows Phone might just turn out to be the first brilliant thing their marketing department has ever done… I don’t have enough information to know if this is just a local trend though. But even if it is local, it still tells me that Apple is on the very edge of a massive popularity back-lash.

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