Apple is back. It is now a wonderfully successful company, with the stock market again valuing Apple more than Microsoft and their total yearly sales, though not profits, passing Microsoft in 2010.Apple is now the second largest company in the world, second only to the mammoth Exxon Mobil. It sells millions of iPods and iPhones and iPads, but can this success last? I say it won’t, that its current success is fleeting, just like in the ’80s and for largely the same reasons.
It is still very early in the mobile revolution, much will change in the coming years.
Eric Schmidt recently praised Apple for bringing computers to the consumer a decade before anyone else, as opposed to companies like Sun, Microsoft, and Novell who’ve always focused on businesses. This made me think of a blog post written by Khoi Vinh, the former design director for NYTimes.com: he’s the guy behind the elegant design of that website.
On his blog, Khoi makes the point that magazine publishers usually fail with the online app version of their publication because they simply create an expanded version of a print magazine online, without integrating links, email and all the other connected aspects that make software and the internet different. Read his post, it’s excellent. Reading his account of how a major iPad app was designed, it hit me again, that’s what Apple does too. Apple creates closed systems that don’t integrate well with all the excellent developers and online content creators outside their company and narrow view.
We know that Steve Jobs is infatuated with “beautiful products”. He always wants to create a shiny design artifact like the Walkman, that stands on its own and works great that way. However, with the arrival of the internet that’s not how we interact with our computers anymore. We now jump from website to website, application to application, and the software that holds our attention, such as a web browser or RSS reader, integrates a wide variety of sources. This online agora may be messy and it certainly isn’t a beautiful design from a singular mind, but it gives us variety and choice and that’s what we want.
Another recent example is The Daily, a new iPad-only newspaper that has shiny 360-degree photos and videos that read the articles to you. I’m sure it all works beautifully together, but it doesn’t integrate with the internet much. It’s almost as though we’re back to CD-ROMs again. Is Apple to blame for standalone apps like The Daily? No, but they don’t do things much differently these days, and no doubt their closed preferences rub off on apps built for the iPad. iTunes, probably their most ubiquitous software, is a famously standalone app that can be difficult for indie content creators to get into. Apple’s stab at web publishing, .Mac/MobileMe, doesn’t appear to have gone anywhere. They purport that turning MobileMe around is a top priority but if the result is anything like their abortive attempt at a social network, fat chance. The iPhone/iPad app store is notorious for its constraints and doesn’t exactly encourage more connected apps. The iPhone didn’t have copy-and-paste for two years!
It doesn’t have to be this way. Khoi points to another iPad app, Flipboard, which tries to integrate all the articles and photos and videos that your friends recommend online into a single app. Though Khoi notes that he’s not sure how Flipboard is legal, that type of internet-integrated experience is the future of how we interact with our computers and online content, rather than the Apple/Daily monolithic apps. Unfortunately, this standalone approach isn’t new for Apple. Apple blew open the desktop market in the late ’70s with its carefully designed and tightly integrated desktop computers but lost to the IBM PC and Microsoft’s OS, both of which became more of an open platform.
Conversely, Apple refused to licence their OS to outside hardware vendors and didn’t focus on third-party developers like Microsoft did. This solitary approach produces a highly polished product that is useful when you’re seeding a new market like the iPod, as users don’t want to buy a new gadget they don’t really understand and then download software from somewhere else and figure out how to get it all to work together. However, as they get to understand what they’re doing, users chafe under the constraints of a closed system and opt towards open systems that offer more choice. It happened with the Apple II, it’ll happen again with the iPad.
Apple wasn’t always this way. The company Jobs started after he left Apple, NeXT, was noted for its email app, NeXTMail (which became the current Apple Mail), one of the first email clients to allow you to add images and audio to your email. Jobs used to talk about “interpersonal computing,” the next step after personal computing, and NeXTMail was his favourite demo of this new approach. Obviously this ability to easily share images and audio was a precursor to the web, and the NeXT workstation is notorious for being the computer on which the first web browser was prototyped (Apple bought NeXT when it brought Jobs back and made the NeXTSTEP OS the basis of its new OS, Mac OS X).
The Apple line has always been home to a suite of multimedia production tools that empowered independent filmmakers and those making home videos. But Apple has now sold out to old media, by moving away from those roots and focusing on selling big-budget movies and magazine apps. This is understandable to some extent, as old media still make most of the money and there are legal risks that come with aggregating content, as Google has found. However, such highly interconnected online apps are clearly the future and there are ways of avoiding the legal issues, for example by building tools to enable outside developers like Flipboard. I don’t expect Apple to have it all figured out, but the eventual solution will come out of experimentation and they should at least be trying. While Apple has gotten behind one form of online media, podcasting, it is silly that they try to carefully control what gets in their store.
Apple seems stuck in the old model of designing a highly polished but standalone Walkman, whereas the future will belong to those who create important pieces of the larger internet ecosystem. It is fascinating that Apple doesn’t get it, despite having enabled the content creation market for decades, but I guess they were always in the broadcast content creation market and have never really done well in the independent online content market.
So who will create the open platform that displaces Apple’s iOS? Android has done very well, passing even Symbian in global quarterly shipments, though a big part of its success is that it costs nothing to licence. Unfortunately, the Android Java/XML development APIs are a dumb approach. Microsoft feints at search and mobile but they seem content to milk their Windows and Office cash cows, although they simply may not have the skills to move into new fields like algorithmic search or mobile. Symbian is an also-ran, MeeGo appears stillborn. The web-based approach of WebOS is DOA. RIM’s QNX gambit is interesting but doomed if they make web and Flash APIs the only development options. The native SDK can’t get here soon enough: when it does, the PlayBook could represent the best option for developers. Bada and LiMo are tantalising but not well known.
It’s estimated that there are 1.3 billion PCs in use worldwide. With 60 million smartphone subscribers in the US, I estimate that the worldwide smartphone installed base is only around 30% of PCs. While Apple and now Android are garnering a lot of hype, we have a long way to go to see who sells smartphones and tablets and other mobile devices to all those people. It is likely most homes will have multiple tablets orbiting a home server, so the mobile market will end up much bigger than PCs. Clearly none of the current players have it all figured out. If anything, Apple’s comeback shows that things can always take a turn.