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How Will Apple Cope with Success?

No doubt you’ve ready the stories already. On the basis of one set of online measurement samples, Apple’s share of the operating system universe exceeded 8% during the final two days of 2007, whereas Windows Vista scores just over 10%.

The figures were compiled by Net Applications, based on traffic measured at some 40,000 sites. Now I can’t say that those sites would necessarily favor a particular computing platform, but it means that the operating system once thought consigned to tiny niche status has taken huge strides in the past year.

Worse, it appears that Windows Vista hasn’t gained nearly the traction Microsoft expected, although they have surely made lots of claims as to how pleased they are with its reception. Then again, can you believe anything Microsoft says, other than the retail price of a new product, when it’s finally released?

To me, the trend is obvious, although the reality is almost hard to believe. Windows market share is stalling and slowly declining, whereas the Mac OS is growing way ahead of expectations, and even the level of industry growth. Is the slow migration to the Mac going to continue in this fashion, or become a stampede in the next few years?

In the tech industry, everyone, it seems, is looking to Apple as the sole source of inspiration for new consumer electronics gear, and the competition seems largely unable to provide anything more than me-too products that may be almost as good, but don’t set the world afire.

So, as lots of iPhones continue to move into the hands of end users, rival cell phone makers have delivered their own variation of touch screen products. Alas, most seem to think that taking the same crummy operating system and replacing the keyboard with a touch screen will somehow make these second-rate products as good as the iPhone. You almost see the Microsoft approach here, which has traditionally been to ape most of the benefits of a competitor’s product, and then tout the result as an example of innovation, rather than an insincere form of flattery.

With all eyes pointed to Apple, however, the pressure cooker atmosphere has become hotter and hotter. Every single product they produce must be the best of the breed, and a fast-breaking success, for otherwise it’ll be a total failure.

Witness Apple TV, which has been characterized by some as an abject failure, with sales estimated at about one million units. Now, Steve Jobs claims the product was an experiment, and that may be true. However, Apple has already moved more units than TiVo, and it’s quite possible there’d be no TiVo had they not made licensing deals with such cable giants as Comcast and Cox.

But Apple TV debuted with the heightened expectations of setting a new standard for a media center-type gadget, and when it didn’t set the world afire, Apple took a drubbing. To be sure, it may be the fact that Apple TV basically requires a high definition TV — or a costly adapter — to function, and that limits the market very much to the U.S. and perhaps Japan. In Europe, HDTV does have the same amount of market penetration.

So maybe it is truly a product for the future, when Apple figures out how best to provide media center capability without tethering Apple TV to technologies that most customers just don’t have yet. They certainly can’t take their cue from the Windows platform, because the media center TV hasn’t really taken off either. I mean, how many of you really want a big PC box in your living room cheek-by-jowl with your flat-screen TV?

The other question is how much of your TV viewing habits can be handled with an HD digital video recorder from TiVo, or the one you rent for a few dollars a month from your cable or satellite provider. If it’s time-shifting, they all work quite well. Maybe the interface of the knock-off set top box isn’t as pretty as Apple or TiVo could cook up, but they get the job done.

Apple, however, is concerned more with how iTunes will integrate with the TV. Sure, you can take your iPod and connect it to most TVs without anything more than a set of cheap cables, but that’s a bit of an awkward process. Sneaker net went away years ago. The Apple TV was supposed to be the ideal solution for seamless content transfer.

Regardless of how Apple TV turns out, anything Apple delivers in 2008 will be put under huge microscopes. They can experiment, sure, but if they don’t hit home runs most of the time, they’ll rapidly return to the land of the beleaguered. Or at last that’s what some tech pundits would want you to believe.