I am not a tech-industry maven, so I have been busy getting up to speed on the implications of Steven A. Ballmer's resignation as chief executive of Microsoft. And what I'm about to say may be obvious to many. Still, I think it's worth saying: there is, once you look past the surface, a remarkable symmetry between Microsoft's strategy in its heyday and Apple's strategy today.
The Microsoft story is familiar. Back in the 1980s, Microsoft and Apple both had operating systems to sell; Apple's was clearly better.
But Apple misunderstood the nature of the market: It said, "We have a better system, so we're going to make it available only on our own beautiful machines and charge premium prices."
Meanwhile, Microsoft licensed its system to lots of people making cheap machines — and established a commanding position through network externalities. People used Windows because other people used Windows — there was more software available, corporate tech departments were better prepared to provide support, etc.
This dominance persists to this day: I'm writing this on a notebook that is running Windows 7, and I won't even consider getting an Apple notebook, mainly because the wonderful people in the information technology department at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, who have saved my life multiple times, aren't set up to deal with Apple products.
But Microsoft missed the boat on mobile devices, while Apple got temporarily ahead of the curve. I say "temporarily," because as far as I can tell Apple products no longer have a dramatic quality edge. I used to have an iPhone — which, sad to say, did not survive dunking in water — and now have a Samsung, and the differences don't seem huge. I have an iPad 2, which I bought for the picture quality, but when I decided that I also wanted a small tablet that I could carry around in my jacket pocket, it turned out that the iPad Mini wasn't significantly better than several Android competitors, and in fact, for my purposes, worse in some ways. (More on that later.)
Now, unlike Microsoft, Apple isn't selling an inferior product. But it is selling products at premium prices that are little, if any, better than those of competitors. How can it do that? Again, network externalities: mainly its much deeper bench of apps, or so I'm told (I actually don't use many).
So how do the prospects for Apple's reign look compared to Microsoft's? Let's not forget that Microsoft is actually an incredible success story — it maintained its lock on PCs for decades, and in fact still retains that lock today; it's just that the market is changing. My casual impression is that Apple's lock isn't nearly as secure, in part because it is relying on the loyalty of individual customers — in contrast to Microsoft, which was largely relying on the loyalty of corporate IT managers, who are inherently more conservative.
My problem with Apple: In general, the thing about the company is that it reflects the spirit of Steve Jobs, who knew what was good for you — and left you no way to do things differently.
And if you are an atypical user, you end up putting a lot of effort into fighting Apple's operating system, iOS, in order to do simple things.
Case in point: I really like watching live performances on YouTube; and I want the best of them to be available to me even when I don't have access to broadband Internet. So I download them onto my PC as MP4s — there are many add-ons that will do this.
But I also want them on a tablet. To do this in iOS, you first have to import them into iTunes on a computer, then sync the devices; not too big a pain, but still a couple of annoying extra steps. The big problem, however, comes when you want to organize your videos: How do I tell iTunes that, say, my 10 favorite Arcade Fire performances are a related set?
Well, the only way I've found is to convince iTunes that they are episodes of a nonexistent TV show. It's doable, but stupid.
Whereas on my Nexus 7 I just copy them into a folder named "Arcade Fire," and there they are.