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Apple's long term memory loss...

In the last few months I've been testing the accessibility of my web site to wireless handheld devices. The latest crop of smart phones include countless useful functions, one phone that stands out is the IPhone which has been intelligently designed to allow third party applications to be easily purchased, downloaded and installed wirelessly. This software purchasing paradigm gives the IPhone a unique ability to satisfy the application needs of user that previous generations of wireless phones didn't have. The main reasons for the lack of this software variety had to do with the desire of the wireless providers to keep their customers locked into their own provided wireless device operating systems and applications. This "lock in" syndrome that many corporations love to place on their customers invariably is broken by a manufacturer who realizes there is profit in allowing the customer freedom to select the software they wish to run on their device.

This harkens back to a history lesson, see the open software concept replays a battle that waged in the early 80's. In those days the players were many companies that are no longer with us as hardware providers of pc's. Atari, Commodore, DEC and some that are still with us but have moved to providing services and software as their primary business lines like IBM and Apple. IBM plays a particular role in this story as it was the chief adversary of Apple during the early 80's when each company had its own unique pc architecture. The architecture defines the internal design characteristics of the computer, the type of central processing unit, the configuration and size of the memory, the ability to allow the attachment of external storage peripherals like tape drives, cartridges and other devices. In these early days , each new pc model produced by the manufacturers were attended by a unique architecture...that is until IBM realized the power of building a modular architecture that could be used from model to model but upgraded by having specific components upgraded. They applied this idea in successive generations of modular pc's from the XT to the AT to the PS/2 and along the way the computing industry picked up many of their modular innovations and combined them into the pretty much standard architecture used for pc's today.

The motherboard manufacturers (Intel was the only big dog of IBM machines at the time) facilitated this by designing their mother boards to accomodate the modular components of the new pc modular architecture. More importantly, alternate pc makers began with "clones" of the IBM models and that allowed the architecture to spread across manufacturers...this was key to spreading the pc platform across the world and ensured that it was the dominant architecture to this day. At the same time as the IBM machines were being made more modular and cross manufacturer friendly. The software on the machines was targeted by a shrewed guy out of Redmond, Washington named Bill Gates owner of Microsoft. Gates saw the power of the architecture that IBM was building and realized that if he had his software on it, and controlled the access to the architecture he would be in a position to make serious bank. Microsoft thus moved to quickly secure a deal with IBM that allowed them to be the exclusive provider of operating system software for the first pc's and by allowing third party software designers the ability to code to their operating system they opened a huge market of software for the platform...thus starting the symbiotic relationship between Intel based pc's and Microsoft software that is still with us to this day.

What was Apple doing at this time? Apple had designed it's best pc's (the MAC line) based on Motorola processors at the core, they had key innovations and architecture changes that made them very different internally from the IBM machines but most importantly they were not designed to be as modular and were there for not appealing to the clone makers. Apple also didn't see (like most people at the time) that an open hardware platform was the key to an open software platform and make it appealing to third party developers to design software which would then bring more customers to the platform. Apple kept their platforms proprietary, releasing the MAC which did well, the LISA which bombed and several other MAC models into the early 90's , none of which ever moved beyond the niche markets of graphic design and desktop publishing cache that they had earned thanks to a relationship with one of their original software providers Adobe Systems.

So the story is that the pc platform grew to its current monster size, as a massive ecosystem of a generalized hardware architecture that could be put together using components from hundreds of manufacturers (read: competition reduces prices) to make new machines that all run the same software. At the same time the Apple platform, tied to a proprietary architecture and restricted to development by proprietary software and few third parties languished. The components were always more expensive since they came from smaller and fewer providers and that ensured the market share remained small.

Fast forward to today, the IPhone gives Apple a chance to do what it failed to do with the MAC architecture over 20 years ago. They have the chance to open up their proprietary platform by allowing third party manufacturers the ability to design their smart phones to the specifications of the modified OS X operating system that runs the IPhone. If they do this, they allow multiple smart phone makers to sell their product without sharing in the production costs and risks. They also get the ability to spread their software service through the IStore to more third party developers who can concentrate on writing code for the IPhone OS weather it runs on an Apple Iphone or on a Nokia phone enabled to run the OS. Yet Apple is not doing this, rather than open up their platform they are again playing the proprietary game....then about two years ago, Google gets into the game. The rumors of Google creating a smart phone actually go back further, I remember reading them as far back as 4 years ago and in the last few months we've seen the release of the first "Gphone" running the open source Android operating system for mobile devices.

Google is hitting at everything that Apple is NOT doing with the Iphone that they would be doing if they were paying attention to their past history. Google , first and formost is making the operating system freely open to development and use by alternate wireless phone manufacturers. They are providing resources for third party software providers to design software for the platform via their SDK and they are providing a market place similar to Apple's Istore to allow third party developed applications to be downloaded by users owning Phones that run Android. I predict that unless Apple opens up its platform in a similar fashion by allowing their mobile OS software to be licensed by other mobile phone providers they will watch a replay of the slow punishment they took in the 80's at the hands of the increasingly modular and cheap pc platform. It would be the ultimate irony that Apple , the company most positioned to advance in the wireless device platform space would again fail to see the importance of open approaches to gaining more market share and eventual profit.


Anonymous said…
An extremely informative piece, thank you! Reminds me of the Video Format War
Bernie Sanders said…
You rock! Thanks for this nice revision of history. i have been telling everyone that Google is the 'new' Microsoft. They are very smart and setting the bar in everything they took up. You analysis here is on the spot. Google will eventually dent Apple will major blow.

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