Steve Ballmer's math on Apple innovation doesn't add up

Steve Ballmer's math on Apple innovation doesn't add up

Summary: Bloomberg recently posted highlight videos of the talk given by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at Oxford in March. He counted that Microsoft had accomplished two and a half "tricks," meaning significant innovations. Apple had two of them. Ballmer's math just doesn't add up.

Steve Ballmer's math on Apple innovation doesn't add up

In the videos from his talk at Oxford's Said Business School, Steve Ballmer said that most tech companies fail — like restaurants, I guess — and that the genius companies are "one-trick ponies," which invent a business worth billons.

For Microsoft, Ballmer counted 2.5 tricks: firstly, the modern PC platform, which comprises Windows software along with the Office software platform; and secondly the Windows Server platform (he described this as Microsoft in the datacenter). And finally, just a half a trick for Redmond's Xbox gaming system.

Ballmer granted that Apple had accomplished two tricks: Macintosh, by which he must also include the popularizing of the first widely available GUI OS; and the iOS mobile computing platform, which spans iPod, iPhone (smartphones), and now iPad (tablet computing).

His math of Apple innovation appears lacking to this longtime Mac user. Let me add a few more "tricks" to the list:

The Apple II platform. Ballmer appears to believe that personal computing began with the launch of the IBM PC, which was Microsoft's big start. Of course, the Apple II platform was one of the first great hardware and software platforms. Most tech industry watchers don't know or recall that the Apple II was Cupertino's cash cow for years following the release of the Macintosh, into the late 1980s. Production of the last Apple II model didn't happen until 1993! I remember using the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, in the early 1980s when I worked in an academic library.

Desktop publishing. It was Apple that in 1985 shipped the first readily available, networked laser printer, the LaserWriter. This printer, along with its Adobe Postscript interpreter technology, the Macintosh (with its support for PostScript and standard AppleTalk networking) and Aldus PageMaker layout application, provided the foundation of an entire industry, from service bureaus to computer graphics.

We take it for granted nowadays, the networked inkjet or laser printer in home or office. It started with the LaserWriter.

The Apple Store. There was a time when all computer makers sold in the channel and even had branded storefronts. But it's all retail history now. In the 1990s, Apple pioneered the store-within-a-store concept and in 2001 opened its first retail store. Now the company runs a network of 424 stores in 16 countries that provide sales, support, product demonstrations, consumer education, and more. Now, the stores are starting a focus on supporting small businesses. Of course, the industry predicted that this retail move would be a complete disaster. 

The first store was developed much like a project. I wrote about it in a post.

"I was once told a tale about the design of the first Apple Store back in 2001. A full-sized mockup of the store was built inside a warehouse in Santa Clara, Calif., where all of the shelves and counters and other store elements were put on coasters. Every morning, Steve Jobs would walk into the warehouse and move things around. Maybe again in the afternoon. This continued until everything was in its proper spot."

There could be others: The transition to Mac OS X, as an example. What about the iTunes Store? Yes, it's the vital service side of iOS, but it's more than that, since it spans Macs and Windows and Apple TV platforms.

At the same time, I wonder if Ballmer isn't selling Microsoft a bit short. I might add Microsoft BASIC and Visual Studio as a developer tools "trick." But given the mixed and often-confused messages from Microsoft over the past decade, it must be easy for him to skip over such "little" tricks.

Topics: Apple, iOS, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows, Windows Server

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  • Computing builds on itself

    Making it very difficult to say where one 'trick' ends and the next begins. For any influential company, you could divide it in such a way that they have done many things or just a few - it all depends on where you draw the lines.
    luke mayson
    • I would count Apple's tricks as:

      Apple II

      Within each trick is an entire ecosystem of hardware and software. 4 tricks ain't to bad when three are still alive (though the iPod is almost dead).
      • Here's Another One For Your List!

        "iOS 7.1.1 lockscreen can be bypassed just by asking Siri"

      • One trick

        I would count Apple's only trick as getting 10% of the technology buying community to pay an extra 50% for glitz.
        • On the other hand, it is a fact, that

          high intelligence is a minority of the human race, so perhaps you are in the low intelligence majority and thus cannot comprehend the thinking behind people who buy Apple products.

          Just sayin'
          • 10%

            the high intelligence ppl are not 10% though. Those 10% are the ones thinking they are the high intelligentry but not quite enough to know they are being taken for a ride ;-)

            Apple might have the 2% -11%, but us top 1% buy Android every time
          • The Microsoft Ride

            I laughed when I read this....... I'm NOT a Macintosh user...... but when it comes to being taken for a ride Microsoft Windows is the ultimate ride. I all but abandoned Windows quite a few years ago now due to the gross instability and degradation of performance it is plagued with. Instability and performance degradation "BY DESIGN", Windows is designed to induce people to upgrade computers and OSes as a result of this. AND it makes it incredibly difficult to bring your data and operating environment forward. It makes you chase drivers, and resolve networking issues, etc. Running Linux, the OS NEVER degrades or becomes unstable, and if I decide to upgrade, I plug a disk in and upgrade, and NEVER lose any data... EVER! THE MICROSOFT RIDE........... far exceeds the Apple ride. People pay more for Macintosh computers because they are better, more reliable, and more stable. They don't hang in there with Linux, but are far superior to WinGarbage!
        • 'Glitz'

          Ah, that foolhardy idea that a fully functioning solution that isn't half-baked is 'glitz' never gets old.

          Nothing 'glitzy' about end-to-end solutions that deliver the reliability, functionality, integration and enjoyment a customer expected.

          I envision guys like you sitting outside a gourmet restaurant saying, 'Meh, same as McDonalds!'
      • I'd modify that list, myself :)

        I don't count the Apple II, as there were others doing similar things around the same time. Jobs didn't count it either when he listed his big stuff out.

        I also don't think Apple gets the credit for the desktop publishing revolution - Adobe does. They're the big innovator there.

        My list:

        - Mac
        - iPod + iTunes
        - iPhone

        They've done other noteworthy things, of course, but that's the big three.

        Microsoft's had some earth shaking changes, too.... My list would be different from Ballmer's. I'd take away credit for Windows, which was not the foundational part of their 'software as a product' innovation, but rather its most impressive result. But their earth shaking contributions are:

        - Software as a product, and the commoditization of the hardware. Microsoft empowered billions by allowing users to turn any old hardware into a super-powered superhero. No more being beholden to one computer maker.

        - Easy software development: the whole concept that programming should be packaged in a time saving container (be it the full IDE with its autocomplete or even just the SDK) that eased the challenges of linking, developing and compiling. You'd still have programming taking years and done by grumpy old farts in vi if it wasn't for Microsoft.

        - non-proprietary browserdom: although Microsoft would one day become one of the worst offenders, Microsoft was the one pushing the web towards relying on standards like CSS and standardized Javascript. Netscape innovated a lot of the early web into existence, but it was Microsoft that actually said, slow down, let's get some of this standardized (they standardized Javascript with the ECMCA), used CSS instead of Netscape's proprietary layers crap... Microsoft did do some of this too, like their blink tag, but in the first browser war, Microsoft was the one more focused on obeying standards.
        • Desktop publishing

          Desktop publishing was born on the Mac using a $7k LaserWriter and Adobe PageMaker. Without the hardware Page Maker would never have made it.
          • Adobe Pagemaker

            Pagemaker was of course an Aldus product at that time, not an adobe one. Like most 'innovation' from Adobe, they simply bought the company and assimilated it. (or bought rival companies to see off better products).
          • Nonsense

            PageMaker was built on top of Adobe PostScript. Without it, it was nothing at all.
  • "We take it for granted nowadays, the networked inkjet or laser printer in

    home or office. It started with the LaserWriter."

    "The first commercial implementation of a laser printer was the IBM 3800 in 1976."

    "The first laser printer designed for use in an office setting was released with the Xerox Star 8010 in 1981. The system used a desktop metaphor that was not surpassed in a commercially successful product until the Apple Macintosh. Although it was innovative, the Star workstation was an expensive (US$17,000) system that was purchased by only a few businesses and institutions.[5] After personal computers became more widespread, the first laser printer intended for a mass market was the HP LaserJet, released in 1984, using a Canon engine controlled by HP software. The LaserJet was quickly followed by printers from Brother Industries, IBM and others. First-generation machines had large photosensitive drums, of circumference greater than the paper length. Once faster-recovery coatings were developed, the drums could touch the paper multiple times in a pass, and could therefore be smaller in diameter.

    In 1985, Apple Computer introduced the LaserWriter which used the newly released PostScript page description language. Up until this point, each manufacturer used their own page description language, making the supporting software complex and expensive. PostScript allows the use of text, fonts, graphics, images, and color largely independent of the brand of the printer or its resolution. PageMaker, written by Aldus for the Macintosh and LaserWriter, was also released in 1985 and the combination became very popular for desktop publishing.[3]:13/23[4]:364"

    • Furthermore:

      "HP introduced the first laser printer for IBM compatible personal computers in May 1984 at the Computer Dealers' Exhibition (COMDEX). It was a 300-dpi, 8 ppm printer that sold for $3,495 with the price reduced to $2,995 in September 1985"


      "The LaserWriter was announced at Apple's annual shareholder meeting on January 23, 1985,[8] the same day Aldus announced PageMaker.[9] Shipments began in March 1985[10] at the retail price of US$ 6,995"


      "The LaserWriter used the same Canon CX printing engine as the HP LaserJet, and as a consequence early LaserWriters and LaserJets shared the same toner cartridges and paper trays"

      • Pointless

        What was the point if you had to use DOS to lay out pages??? You could not produce magazine/newspaper layouts on the PC whereas you could on the Mac in with a LaserWriter.
        • Pointless?...really!

          Well, you walked right into that one derky. I layed out pages for a commercial electronic printing service bureau, using Xerox Ventura Publisher. It ran on DOS. You typed vp and and voila, a WSYWIG interface that looked very similar to...hmmm... the old "revolutionary" Mac GUI. Also, a Ventura document could be up to 9,999 pages, while, at that time PageMaker was capable of 20. We used it print the first-ever laser printed version of the international IEEE directory. Apple history is so much like Woodstock history...the truth is so much different...less sexy...and way smellier.
          • You mean Xerox used

            the GUI that Apple stole for the Macintosh BEFORE Steve Jobs stole it?

            Imagine that.
            Han Rasmussen
          • All companies borrow

            Looking at the big picture...

            Meh, it's all good and people love the system...
          • Nonsense. Try knowing what you're talking about

            First, Steve Jobs PAID XEROX for the technology they used. They didn't steal anything. Furthermore, they hired many of the key developers, who extended their ideas after moving to Apple. More to the point, anyone who claims that the Apple GUI came from XEROX simply doesn't know what they are talking about. The majority of the ideas used in the original MacOS came as a result of work done at Apple, NOT XEROX.
            You claim otherwise? As an actual user of the system that gave rise to the GUI, the XEROX Alto, let me ask you a simple question: What was the name of the interface by which a user entered commands in to the OC and how did it work?
            Your answer, if correct, will touch heavily on the points made above.
          • Bull

            The only thing that smells here is your story. First, XEROX didn't own Publisher until 1990. Prior to that, the code was owned by Corel. More to the point, the first version of Ventura Publisher came out in 1986, over a full year AFTER the Apple LaserWriter/Pagemaker/Mac combo.
            And Ventura Publisher did NOT run on DOS, it ran under and embedded version of GEM from Digital Research. GEM ran on top of DOS, and acted as the GUI.