Apple's play for platform dominance

Apple's play for platform dominance

Summary: The iPhone and Mac computers are never likely to dominate a particular market for Mac OS X. iPad represents Apple's real chance to do so in a market that is, for all intents and purposes, virgin territory.


Apple iPad

Maybe I'm getting pulled along by the tidal wave of hype accompanying Apple's new computing device. Then again, the hype does seem to be backed by some real demand. You don't have to hear it from me to know that the iPad looks like it is off to a flying start. Pictures this weekend of lines outside of Apple stores all across the United States support the notion that there is high demand for this kind of product. I was quite impressed with the device when I played with it at a West Hollywood Best Buy this past Saturday.

It seems likely that Apple will sell stacks of iPads this year, and if growth follows a similar trajectory to iPhone, its popularity will only accelerate with each new generation. More important for Apple, though, is that the iPad is designed to generate LOTS of revenue...for Apple. Apple's iPad business model provides multiple revenue "whacks," starting when people buy the device in the first place, followed by an ongoing revenue stream from the cut Apple takes on every application sold through its App store (which is, consequently, the only way to get an application onto an iPad, which to my mind, is a clear step backwards). Microsoft would have killed to have had a similar model for Windows, followed most assuredly by antitrust officials returning the favor by splintering the company into a 1000 little pieces.

Sales numbers are important, though they aren't the only reason the iPad represents Apple's attempt to make real developer mindshare gains for Objective-C and its Cocoa family of APIs (the technologies which underlie native development atop the Mac OS X platform). Clearly, Apple executives have that in mind. Positioning Mac OS X as the foundation of its line of computers, iPod Touch and iPhone devices was a hint of things to come, as it means every new user creates that much more demand for the platform as a whole (which is why it drives me crazy that Microsoft never really achieved true platform unification; most of its devices are based on Windows CE, not base Windows). It provides context for Apple's attack on former friend Adobe and its Flash technology. Apple can't really do anything to stop HTML and web technologies from being a viable platform for applications, as failure to support them properly would all but doom any network-aware device they offered to market. However, the limitations of web applications ensure that companies will need to write non-browser applications. Apple has ensured that those applications will be mostly Objective-C using Cocoa, at least for their new line of portable products.

iPad, however, can cement Apple's APIs as a de facto standard similar to the role Microsoft's WIN32 APIs serve on desktop computers, in ways that iPhone and Apple's computer line never could. From a computer standpoint, Apple is unlikely to ever displace Windows, or make much of a dent in the server space (not that Apple has tried very much, Mac OS X Server notwithstanding), though they might manage an uptick. That battle is over, and Microsoft won it. Dominate a new category of computing category, maybe (hint hint). They aren't, however, going to end up the de facto standard in desktop computers.

Apple has made large strides in the phone space, to be sure. The iPhone redefined the category, changing completely what users expect from data-connected smartphones. The problem with phones, though, is that they are a bit like cars and clothes. They are personally identifiable and expressive of individuality in ways a desktop computer isn't (though I think it is notable that Apple has had most success, from a computer standpoint, in laptops, something people do carry on their person and use publicly in places like coffee bars and Internet cafes). Apple will have a large share of the smartphone market, but I don't ever see them controlling the market the way Microsoft did with Windows.

The iPad is different. It is a new-ish category, one that has been tried by others (notably Microsoft). Those predecessors, however, were hamstrung by an inability to simplify the interaction model for a new form factor. That, consequently, is the same thing that torpedoed Windows Mobile, at least once something better appeared on the horizon. Apple is entering the market with a large number of applications, a great distribution network centered around its iTunes Application and content store, and a sense for design of products people use in public spaces. What is unique about the space iPad enters is that it is, at core, a tools market.

Don't get me wrong, people WILL buy iPads because it sports the big Apple logo on back and is the much-hyped cool new technology least for now. That mania, however, will fade, just as the iPhone glitz is starting to fade as Androids pop up on networks around the world, attracted by a business model that pays them to carry it (Google, a services and advertising company, can do that, which is why it is such a threat to both Apple and Microsoft's business model). What will keep Apple pumping out iPads, in my opinion, is if it makes a great tool that is easy to use and has available to it a large supply of helpful applications (the same thing that initially made Windows so compelling). In the tools category, usefulness eclipses sex appeal (though Apple knows that the latter never completely goes away). As Microsoft demonstrated with its control of the platform used on personal computers, one company can achieve overwhelming market share of a tool. With that market share, Apple can grow developer mindshare. Developers (myself included) follow the market.

It would be hard to mistake me for a fan of Apple products. I've never liked Apple computers, favoring the developer-friendliness, universal compatibility and UI flexibility of Windows. I can't stand Apple business practices, whether it involves predatory lawsuits designed to curtail growth in Android's market share or the hammerlock they have over the approval process for applications that appear on an iPhone or iPad. I strongly dislike Apple development technologies (Objective-C in particular), though fortunately for Apple, that is something most people care nothing about.

But, I've never faulted their hardware design skills, and I certainly can't fault them their strategy. Apple is rolling out an entirely new category of product while its larger (for now) competitor, Microsoft, is struggling to roll out a sensible competitor to the iPhone and Android. But, I'm not a fan of Ed Hardy-brand clothes, hate the De Beers-created cultivation of invidious distinction centered around sparkly rocks, and have never found an insurance company about whom I've had good things to say. My dislike of the company, in other words, isn't likely to change the fact that Apple is one of the smartest companies in computers these days.

Will I buy an iPad? I certainly won't rule it out. As noted, the device feels very easy to use. I can see a lot of use for it for quick browsing of the Internet, retrieval of email (it supports Exchange, so I can check my corporate email), and maybe even watching Netflix in bed. I previously thought that I couldn't see myself reading books on it due to its backlit screen (the same reason I hate reading documents on a laptop), though I'm less sure after holding it in my hands. I read LOTS of boring technical PDFs these days, and the iPad would be a great way to go through them (though getting them ONTO the device was made unnecessarily tricky due to Apple's decision to omit an SD slot or a USB port).

The thing that struck my wife and me was that this would be perfect for her non-technical parents (not my parents, who are bigger geeks than I am). Computers ARE too complicated, and this was almost as easy to use as opening a book and reading from it.

I won't ever stop rooting for another company to take bigger market share so long as Apple is the kind of company that it is (Google seems the most likely candidate). But, I will appreciate the design of their products.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, CXO, iPad, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • a little grammar correction

    "The thing that struck my wife and I was that this would be perfect for her non-technical parents (not my parents, who are bigger geeks than I am). Computers ARE too complicated, and this was almost as easy to use as opening a book and reading from it."

    It really should be "The thing that struck my wife and me...."
    • You are correct

      If you remove "my wife and" it becomes obvious. You would never say "what struck I..".

      John writes very well. Many people however will say "Me and mom went to the store". Correct grammar would be "Mom and I went to the store." Firstly, if you remove "mom" you would never say "me went to the store". Secondly, it is impolite to mention yourself first - therefore, "Mom and I.."

      Sometimes I wonder what kids learn in school these days - it sure is't grammar.
    • Changed

      John Carroll
    • A correction not worth making...

      The question you should really be asking yourself is not whether to use a subject or an object pronoun (I vs me, he vs him, who vs whom, etc), but rather why you should care which?

      Object pronouns (him, her, whom, me) are differences without any meaning. In other words, they're simply used because there are grammatical rules which say you should use them. But they don't in any way clarify a sentence. They are simply linguistic make-work. They are grammatical boondoggle.

      I've yet to see a sentence whereby the meaning was unclear because a subject pronoun was used instead of the grammatically correct object pronoun. Simply, the object pronoun doesn't add anything to the clarification of a sentence.

      Case in point: the subject pronoun and the object pronoun for the second person singular is the same: "you". Does the sentence "Bob gave the stick to you" confuse you because the object pronoun "you" is the same as the subject pronoun "you"? No, you're completely clear on which was the subject and which was the object, despite the fact that there wasn't a different form of "you" ("youm", maybe) to explicitly indicate "hey, this is an *object*". "Sally gave it to Bob" isn't unclear because of the lack of an object form of "Bob" ("Bobm", maybe), right?

      Therefore, the usage of, and especially the *demand* that object pronouns be used, is lacking in justification.

      Rules shouldn't be followed simply because they exist. And one shouldn't demand that others follow a rule unless one can rationalize a good reason other than "it's the rule."

      If English were a computer language, it wouldn't survive long before engineers would start excising and rewriting it because of inconsistencies and bugs. To insist on its usage at Spec Version 0.05 is to ossify its usage at a state that is in great need of refactoring.

      Bottom line: it's time to be done with the distinction between subject and object pronouns!
    • i like this sentence ...

      "...which is why it drives me crazy that Microsoft never really achieved
      true platform unification..."

      a microsoft fanboi has to admit that his beloved company lacks any
      strategic and marketing vision. that is hard. i feel the pain.

      and not only that but apple is so superior in anything (design, ease of use,
      quality, ecosystem, branding etc.) it must be really horrible to be a
      microsoft fan nowadays.

      why not call mary-jo and ed bott for some kind of therapy session?
  • Great blog

    This seems like just another Apple vs MS battle (maybe Apple vs Google this time?) similar to the one of a couple of decades ago. When IBM came out with the open PC architecture, Apple's fate was sealed. What is happening now with Android (and soon Chrome?) seems eerily similar to the early Apple vs PC war.

    I am sure Jobs has not forgotten that loss. The question is: have the circumstances changed sufficiently for Apple to ultimately be successful with the same strategy this time around?

    I am not at all convinced, but it will sure be fascinating to watch.
    • maybe a failed educational model... which top-down stupidity from Washington acted like formaldehyde on kids' minds will work in Steve Jobs's favor this time.

      If our kids look at computing equipment as voodoo that shouldn't be tampered with, they will be content with Apple's closed architecture model, in which only the priesthood from Cupertino are competent to fiddle with what Apple hath wrought.

      Nice scam, if Jobs can get away with it - a computer without expansion ports, access to its innards, even the ability to change batteries (so that when, not if, the batteries inside the iPad go south, the hapless user must pay a technician to change them).

      If people want cameras, video dongles, other new and cool things, they must pray to the God who lives at Apple Computer for whole new iPads which support such foolishness.

      Of course, the omission of the camera or any other way to CREATE content on the iPod may be deliberate. Since Apple is asserting control over what content runs on the iPad, the ability to make samizdat on this platform would logically be forbidden.

      Maybe the 1984 "lady smashing the Big Brother screen" can be replaced with a 2010 equivalent in which a huge Steven Jobs reaches out from the screen and grinds a lowly independent content creator into the floor of the auditorium with his thumb....
      • RE: Apple's play for platform dominance

        I disagree. You have the microphone, video and the cable interface. Sure, you can't change the battery yourself, but there is nothing stopping third party developers from creating some of the things you mention. I saw a credit card scanner that plugs into to ear bug interface. I'm sure someone will come out with some sort of camera/video device connected to one of the available interfaces as well. This is a first generation device, Apple does listen to its customers and I'm sure they'll be adding features in future iterations. Jeez, there's just no pleasing some people. There's nothing else as usible, easy, elegant and stable as the iPhone and iPad.
      • RE: Apple's play for platform dominance

        @loupgarous - There is already a Dock to USB connector for the iPad that will connect to your camera and video/DVD recorder. You missed it on this one. No deliberate omission. Rather a deliberate inclusion.
        The Danger is Microsoft
    • maybe

      ... apple's success with the ipod and iphone and its underlying vertical
      approach gives it good confidence that they can pull it off this time.
  • Compare your iPAD with an Archos 9...

    ...which has been out for quite a while now. Is there anArchos 10 on it's way?
    Feldwebel Wolfenstool
    • No idea

      But as noted, I think Microsoft's Tablet efforts have been rather ridiculous. As Ed Bott has pointed out, they can't even get Microsoft divisions to fire in the same direction, hence the lack of touch-enabled applications from Microsoft (which is shocking for a company that makes as many applications as Microsoft, and which is, nominally, one big happy company).

      Handwriting recognition is a HUGE advantage to Microsoft Table PC products. The keyboard seems to be the biggest complaint among iPad users (it was mine, too, when I spent some time with it). But lacking applications that are truly touch-enabled makes the Tablet PC less appealing. Again, Microsoft has a pathological inability to act like one company these days.

      We'll see if they manage any better with Windows Phone 7 (which needs a new name).
      John Carroll
      • Aren't they talking up Courier...

        while at the same time promoting their partnership with HP and the Slate, that runs Windows 7? As a consumer looking in, you're not sure what direction they will go. It's like two separate companies with dueling ideologies. Even Ballmer himself seem to be taking sides - when asked about the Courier he pretended he never heard of the thing. Crazy.
        • That's because

          Microsoft ISN'T a unified company. There really is no reason for Microsoft to be in as many sectors as they are if they can't act like one company.
          John Carroll
          • Not only is Microsoft not unified...

            but Apple's gamut of products is far less than Microsoft's: There is no SQL Server, no Exchange, no SharePoint, no Bing, no XBox, no Office, no C# - VB - F#, no Azure. Also, no OEMs, drivers, 3rd Party anything in software. Apple can focus on 3 or 4 things and (maybe) Steve Jobs iron hand ensures a consistent "world" view.
            Roque Mocan
          • True

            Being able to concentrate on fewer products is useful, though then again, Microsoft WAS aiming at a wider ranging ecosystem of products. They are more a developer tools company than Apple (which is why Apple's developer APIs are still so damn primitive, in my humble opinion).

            But, that doesn't have to be a problem. Big companies, if they want to stay that way, need to figure that out. They CANNOT let their company turn into warring clans who refuse to work with one another for fear of losing control over code.

            The ecosystem concept doesn't work if your teams barely play together.
            John Carroll
          • But that just begs the issue....

            The primary responsibilities of a CEO are to:

            1. determine/articulate the strategic vision/direction, and

            2. create the right environment/incentives for the rest of the company to follow/chase that vision.

            MS's difficulties are therefore a pretty strong indication that Ballmer is failing.
          • re: Roque mocan

            [i]Not only is Microsoft not unified, but Apple's gamut of products is far less than Microsoft's: There is no SQL Server, no Exchange, no SharePoint, no Bing, no XBox, no Office, no C# - VB - F#, no Azure. Also, no OEMs, drivers, 3rd Party anything in software. Apple can focus on 3 or 4 things and (maybe) Steve Jobs iron hand ensures a consistent "world" view.[/i]

            I won't argue that Apple hasn't branched out as much as Microsoft, but 3/4 of the services you listed here are also provided by Apple, and then I can name just as many that Apple provides and Microsoft doesn't (Aperture, Logic Studio, and Final Cut Studio to start).

            Being a company as big as Apple is no small feat, but they don't seem to have the same problems of communication amongst their different departments. Pixar doesn't get confused by what Apple is doing, and the interoperability amongst Apple's software is quite seamless.
          • If Final Cut Studio...

            ...which I've used while porting DV records of astrobiology conferences to DVD for a local museum, is an example of what Apple has to offer, then Microsoft will have to work hard to lose any market battles with Apple (I don't say that Microsoft won't - under Steve Ballmer - put forth the needed effort).

            Final Cut, however, is an ABORTION masquerading as video editing software. Even on a G5, it just drags along on simple tasks such as importing raw video. It's one of the few cases where I felt completely spoiled using Wintel hardware to do the same tasks afterward.
      • The keyboard seems to be the biggest complaint among iPad users

        Wow, 1 day out & youre already compiling data about complaints (the biggest)? you're quick?