Apple's Journey to the Top

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Jun 15, 2010


Apple appears to have knocked Microsoft off its throne to become the world's biggest technology company. The news has been met with delight by many of Apple's loyal customers, who see the news as proof that the era of Windows is finally over, and the computing baton has passed from Redmond to Cupertino. Sadly for Mac fanboys, the truth is probably quite the reverse.

OS Roundup: Was it exclusion or exclusivity that fueled Apple's journey to being the world's biggest technology company? Or perhaps it's Apple's understanding and ability that when the producer names the tune, the consumer must dance.

Here's why: When Apple Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) was a computer company that concentrated on selling Macs it went to the very brink of bankruptcy before being bailed out by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) in 1997. Apple's recent success stems not from computers, but from its iPhone, iPad and iPod consumer gadgets. It would therefore be no surprise if Apple threw in the towel on the computer front in the near future and abandoned the Mac platform and its OS X desktop and server operating systems altogether.

Unlikely? Think again. After all, Apple does have a track record of abandoning its technology and the customers unfortunate enough to have invested in it. It did just that with the Motorola-based Macs, and it did so again with the PowerPC-based ones. It also has a history of telling its customers what they want and what they can have -- think of the absence of Flash on the iPhone, for example.

As recently as this month at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple supremo Steve Jobs spent two hours talking about the iPhone and new mobile apps without so much as mentioning that the Mac platform even existed. As Jeff Bertolucci points out over at PC World, Apple dropped the Mac software category from its annual Apple Design awards, told shareholder and analyst meetings that the company is focusing on mobile gadgets, and announced that personal computers -- including the Mac -- are on the wane.

So is it really so far-fetched to imagine that at some point in the coming months Apple will tell its followers they can't have Macs anymore, and they will have to learn to want iPads or some other iDevice instead? Most Mac customers dutifully bought PowerPC-based Macs when the Motorola-based ones were discontinued, and then bought Intel-based ones when Apple told them to. There is little reason for Apple to doubt that its long suffering fan base would abandon their Macs for gadgets if Jobs gave the word that they should. Apple has become so successful because it understands that when the producer names the tune, the consumer must dance.

So how did all this come about? Apple used to be a computer company, and it was founded, in part, on lofty ideals. In the documentary movie "Hackers Wanted," Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak talks about the legendary Homebrew Computer Club and his ideals before starting Apple. "The whole mentality of the Homebrew Computer Club was extremely open. Information should be handed out because basically we were creating stuff that was going to move the world forward, and we should do our best to be good contributors to society in that way."

But as the company grew, this openness gave way to a closed, jealous, selfish approach to technology. Apple built up a tiny but loyal following of fans who enjoyed using its desktop and laptop computers, and it managed to convince them life was better without most mainstream software and popular games, and without the ability to use these computers with most of the peripherals and gadgets on the market. Apple customers simply got used to the fact that if they bought a laser printer, a heart rate monitor, a GPS or some other gizmo that could be connected to a computer, they would probably be excluded from doing so because they had a Mac, and after all, style was more important than substance.

In fact, Apple's entire computer strategy was based on exclusion or -- as Apple customers were encouraged to believe -- exclusivity. And Apple loved to remind Mac owners that its OS software also excluded harmful viruses and other malware from their machines.

The problem was that less than 5 percent of the world's computer buyers were prepared to live like some bubbleboy in a digital plastic oxygen tent, never catching a cold in Apple's sterile environment, yet isolated from those outside enjoying all the excitement of the big bustling digital world -- albeit catching the occasional sniffle along the way.

It was this unsuccessful Mac strategy that almost caused the company's downfall, and it was then that Apple clearly made a decision to move in to gadget-making. More recently, it has elected to devote itself to that market, all but abandoning its computer-related activities -- which are now restricted to regularly grinding out uninspired iterations of its laptop and desktop machines to its fans. (Of course some people claim that iPads or iPhones are computers in their own right, and technically that's true -- in the same way that fridges or microwave ovens with processors and firmware are computers.)

So congratulations to Apple for becoming the biggest tech company in the world thanks to all those addictive gadgets. Let's see how long it is before the company dumps the Mac platform, the OS X desktop and server operating system, and the rest of the baggage from its old life as a computer company.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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