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Sat 13 Mar 2004

The Alternative Model

Category : Commentary/alternativemodels.txt

Rob Enderle wrote the following reply to a reader of his article about "Apple's Competitive Advantage" :

"Microsoft grasped the core dynamic that was going to define the industry first and Apple never got it. They, like IBM, wanted to do both software and hardware and both firms lost as a result. Apple, who arguably created the first real PC, and IBM who defined the most popular version, are both shadows of what they should be against firms that are more specialized and often far less creative."

Yet, in his article, Enderle had also said, "Apple's designs are, well, elegant. There is no better word for it. Sony and Toshiba can come close at times, but, on average, Apple has the best-designed hardware from an aesthetics point of view of any vendor."

So how could we believe both statements to be true? We could believe that computing devices can be, architecturally, both open and closed at the same time - like the Mac (an attractive, proprietary, custom-built interface wrapped around platform-neutral Open Source parts). We could also believe that Apple's designs are elegant precisely because Apple is able to control the way its hardware and software come together, in a way that Dell can't. But it is not clear why we should believe that an admittedly well-made product is doomed to failure just because it doesn't conform to the ideological model that the analysts have in their heads?

The way Apple chose to do their technology has rewarded them with a famously loyal customer base. And, except for the periods where they had poor management - which could justifiably lead one to believe that the problem was poor execution rather than the wrong concept - Apple has always been profitable.

So, why the air of inevitability, whenever an analyst intones about the might of Microsoft's "model" - of flat, layered architectures controlled by Microsoft?

I believe that Apple's diametrically opposed model - vertical integration of industry-standard platform-neutral software layers (as opposed to Microsoft-centric ones) - is not only as viable as Microsoft's. It is also of more relevance to an age where the ability to produce small, portable, stylish yet useful, information-driven devices is the defining skill for new companies and economies to emulate. Here, the ability to decide what to leave out, is just as important as the decision about what to put in.

That's the importance of watching the war currently being waged over the iPod and the iTunes Music Software. If Apple wins this war, and holds on to its market share, even as it is stubbornly holding on to its notion of building both the hardware and the software, then it will destroy the purity of the model that the analysts have worshipped for ages, which justified the existence of all those mediocre Windows-based PCs.

I believe that neither Apple nor Microsoft has a monopoly on ideas about how we could use computers and other information-based devices. But if Apple's model can succeed, then it will inspire other aspirants to exploit the same idea - take all these Open Source parts and make them work even better than Apple has done. Apple's model leaves room for others to compete. Not so, Microsoft's. Computer architectures are a lot more subtle than the simplistic model people like Rob Enderle and Charles Ferguson have room in their heads for. (Jim Carlton had to use a Mac to write his tome celebrating the fall of Apple. Would he have had the time, focus, and energy to find the right turn of phrase to turn the screws on Apple, if he had been writing all that on a PC? In other words, if he had to be "a rocket scientist of system administration"?)

The question is: whom do we wish to serve? Ironically, cheering on Apple doesn't mean we're Apple-groupies, and cheering on Microsoft doesn't mean we are rooting for the "industry". To me, it is always the other way around, and I hope I've managed to articulate why. We should be rooting for computers that work better, and for better competition (at the very least better than Dell). I think we have a better chance with Apple's model, than with Microsoft's.

Posted at 3:56AM UTC | permalink

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