By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm
Over at Techland (where I’m guestblogging a couple of times a week–come visit!) I wrote about the tendency of lots of pundits to assume that the smartphone wars will inevitably repeat the PC wars, with Apple’s tightly-managed iPhone getting trounced by the widely-dispersed Android ecosystem. In the Techland post, I explain why I don’t think that’s a given. One big reason why is the existence of the Internet–if all phones end up being portals to an open-standards Net, there’s no particular reason why multiple platforms can’t thrive.
With bigger, traditional computers, we’re already largely there. For operating systems, the Web is a diplomatic place where it doesn’t really matter what OS you’re using as long as you’ve got a modern browser. And nearly all peripherals such as printers, cameras, and networking gizmos work equally well with Windows and Macs. It’s wildly different from the 1980s and 1990s, when the computing universe rotated around Microsoft’s platform and there were lots of things which Macheads simply could not do.
This leveling of the playing field is part of why the Mac’s market share has crept up in recent years, and why nobody predicts that Macs are going away. Actually, Apple ended up with a monopoly of its own that’s the envy of its competitors: It dominates the market for $1,000+ PCs just as surely as Microsoft does the lower end of the business.
But it’s hard to undo history: Windows’ market share got so big so quickly that it’s difficult to imagine a future in which the Mac ever catches up, especially since Apple shows no interest whatsoever in the idea of super-cheap Macs.
Thinking about all this led me to get speculative. What if the Internet already existed, but the war between Windows and the Mac began today? Could a new machine called the Mac do explosively well in a way it didn’t a couple of decades ago? Might the current dynamics of personal computing permit at least two platforms to rack up major marketshare?
Trying to figure all this out makes my head hurt–and I’m not even attempting to factor in the possibility that Steve Jobs and team circa 2010 just might make better decisions than Apple management did during the period from Jobs’ ouster until his return.
Of course, Apple did something this year that’s not radically different from launching the Mac as a new product in 2010: It introduced the iPad. Compared to current Windows PCs and Macs, the iPad is roughly what the original Mac was to IBM PCs. (It’s the machine that Apple would have built back in 1984 if it could have.) And while lots of people still aren’t sold on it, I don’t know of many who predict it’ll fail because it’s incompatible with applications for other platforms.
“Would the Mac succeed if it were invented today?” is ultimately unanswerable. But “Will the iPad succeed against competing tablets which will likely be standardized on platforms such as Android?” will get answered over the next few years, and it’s almost the same question. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun to see what happens.