The wonderment of Apple

Apple's current success is truly astounding when you consider the state of the company in 2000. Today, they are the company that essentially owns that segment willing to pay most for client device customizations.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

The protagonist in the book "Looking Backward," a 19th century novel by utopian author Edward Bellamy, awakes sometime late in the 20th century and proceeds, over the course of the book, to recount what he sees there. In Bellamy's case, the protagonist saw a socialist Utopia well entrenched in the year 2000. Clearly, prognosticators have a hard time making accurate predictions about the future (and have a tendency to project their own desires into what they see there, just ask this guy).

The world of IT moves a lot faster. Imagine a programmer hit by a bus on the way to work in 2000. He goes into a 10-year coma, awaking on November 30, 2010 with a raging desire for Chicago stuffed pizza (and who wouldn't). Given that his memory of computers stops at 2000, he might be forgiven for assuming that Microsoft ruled not only desktop computers, but cell phones, tablets, tables, refrigerators, cars, and any other device that can make use of CPUs and memory chips (though he might have thought there would be several Microsoft's at the time, as he couldn't have known that Penfield Jackson's break-up ruling would be overturned by Collar-Kotelly).

The reality, of course, would be shocking to him. Who would have expected that today, Apple, a company that was nearly on its deathbed in 2000, is now the most valuable company in IT from a market capitalization standpoint, or that they would stand atop the heap in the new device category that is proving the fastest growing segment in computing?

Nobody would mistake me for a fan of Apple products, though it's hard to discount their success. I recently received a Brookstone catalog in the mail, and was astounded by how much stuff there is that touts its compatibility with iPod, iPhone and iPad. A recent article on Ars Technica touted iPads and MacBooks as this Christmas' "goods of desire." It's all-but impossible to escape the Apple logo around LA these days, whether it glows from the back of a laptop perched on a table in a local coffee bar or is emblazoned on a gigantic ad along the Sunset Strip (though Apple seems to have given up the gigantic 12-story ad along Santa Monica, something you could easily see from the Hollywood sign).

It seems a position that will be difficult for anyone to displace. Google certainly seems to have gained  traction for Android, and as Informa noted in a presentation I saw a few weeks ago in Puerto Rico, Android will balloon in market share in the coming years. Market share, however, doesn't necessarily translate into revenue for application developers, a point John Gruber made in a recent post on his blog. Apple seems to have collected for itself that segment of phone users who like to customize their phones. That's a useful trick, and goes a long way towards explaining why Apple continues to have overwhelming dominance in terms of the number of applications available for an iPhone. As Gruber noted, developers go where the money is, and the people who are willing to part with it seem to gravitate around Apple products.

That, to my mind, is not surprising, as the thing that Apple understood long before any other company was that devices that you carry on your person are different. People who like to make statements about themselves tend to gravitate towards products that specialize in cultivating what Thorstein Veblen would call "invidious distinction." This is why I don't think Apple should lose much sleep over Android's market share gains. Apple shouldn't want to grow its share too high, as that undermines the statement ownership of an Apple product makes. So long as they keep investing their products with that "something special," people will still want to upgrade their phones to the latest every year, which appears to be a unique characteristic of iPhone users. Shortly after iPhone 4 came out, I was surprised how many people walking the streets in LA converted their version 3 devices to the new platform.

Who would have thought so much could have come from dominance in digital music players?

From hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. Back in the day, I used to argue with proponents of Java (and I counted myself as one at the time) whether Sun would have much success in the client space with its new Java runtime. I thought they wouldn't, as Sun, as a server company, didn't understand the needs of client environments very well.

You learn what kinds of things customers need and want by trying your hand at the market. Apple's experience with the iPod taught them how to make devices that are easy to use and personally identifiable. Well, to be honest, personally identifiable was more part of Apple's DNA than any other company (candy-colored iMacs could only have come from Apple), but easy to use takes work. The iPod was their laboratory, and iPhone and iPad sprung from its beakers spraying money in all directions.

Cultivating the iPod was an interesting way to displace what everyone thought was Microsoft's unshakable grip on the world of computers...though I hesitate to say Jobs was completely aware of the potential, even as I credit him for the directions the company took. Apple didn't invest most of its energies in making a frontal assault on the PC dominance of Microsoft, a space to which the old Apple confined itself almost exclusively. Instead, they created an entirely new market segment, one that didn't have a well-entrenched competitor, built it into a powerhouse, and used that as a beachhead from which to launch into phones and tablet devices.

I may grumble about it, but it worked. Android might squeeze Apple, but they will never displace it in phones. And in tablets? Heck, they seem on their way to running away with the category the way they did with iPods. De facto standards are hard to displace...just ask Microsoft.

As much as I hate to admit it, Objective-C and Cocoa are going to be important tools in my client development toolbox. Server technologies will always be in demand, and those are far beyond the control of a company that is essentially a force on the client. Web skills are also not to be displaced, as every device must support web apps as a baseline feature. But if you are doing anything more advanced, well, Apple has a right to demand you pay attention to their APIs. Developers know that, and the more that sinks in, the more entrenched Apple and its APIs become in the marketplace.

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