An interesting sidelight of Apple’s blowout quarter is how quickly the company is soaring past Microsoft. As sales of Windows falter, Apple is firing on all cylinders. Indeed, media analysts hoping for a big fall are clearly going to have to wait a long time for Apple’s momentum to slow.
Meantime, I have to think how things have changed in the tech industry.
When I first started using Macs in the 1980s, they weren’t taken very seriously beyond a small core of content creators, such as musicians, producers, and graphic artists. As recording engineers began to bring Macs into their studios, and traditional typesetting companies went Mac, I was repeatedly informed that I had bet on the wrong horse. Real computers, so to speak, used MS-DOS. Macs were toys, and, besides, there wasn’t much software available for them.
Certainly Apple didn’t help the process when a procession of inept executives nearly sent the company off to pasture, as Microsoft just grew larger and larger. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company was weeks away from failure. That frightening fact, however, may not have been obvious to people like me who depended on Macs to earn a paycheck, and only chafed at the unstable OS releases, and the questionable design decisions on new models. And please don’t get me started on the insane memory upgrade scheme that afflicted loads of Mac towers during that era. The process sometimes made fiddling with an original Mac mini with a putty knife seem simple.
Now over the years, a constant meme has played out in some sectors of the tech press, that loyal owners of Apple products have somehow been brainwashed. Apple’s gadgets are overpriced, and do not perform any better than the competition, so why pay more? Of course, they can’t talk seriously about the legendary Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” anymore, since, in his final days, he wasn’t visible all that much as Apple’s leader. Indeed, Apple’s greatest success has come after Tim Cook became the official CEO.
Meantime, Microsoft appears to have been bracing for a fall over a period of several years, although their executives seem oblivious as to how much things have changed. Consider, for example, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. At the time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed Apple’s chances for success, yet what we’ve seen is that, as Apple’s share of the market entered double digits and, in fact, even surpassed Google Android smartphones in the last quarter by a small margin, Microsoft has failed. Utterly. Windows Phone market share lies in the single digits, with little evidence of any real growth.
Worse for Microsoft is the fact that Windows Phone has actually gotten pretty good reviews overall. The Metro interface, although it hasn’t caught on, doesn’t look bad on a smartphone. You see them on TV shows from time to time, although they aren’t mentioned in the shows themselves. Contrast that to Apple, where the iPod, iPhone and iPad — and even Macs — are referred to by name. I recall an episode of the CBS procedural drama, “CSI: NY,” in which iPads actually became important plot devices.
When it comes to PCs, sales are down almost across the board. During Tuesday’s conference call with financial analysts, Cook said that the iPad has continued to cannibalize PC sales. The iPad even took some sales from the Mac, but not a lot, since record sales were tallied regardless.
In fact, when you combine iPad and Mac sales, Apple has already passed HP as the number one personal computer maker on the planet. That ought to serve as one huge embarrassment to HP CEO Meg Whitman, who didn’t expect that to happen until later this year.
The change in the PC business has clearly left Microsoft unprepared to embrace a future in which mobile devices dominate. Sure, Windows 8 will be available for both PCs and tablets. Sure, Windows 8 will sport a user interface derived from Windows Phone, Metro. But regular Windows apps won’t work on mobile gear, which will use the ARM processor family. Besides, when you click beneath the Metro veneer, it’ll still be Windows on a regular PC. Does Microsoft truly believe you won’t notice?
Some months back, I joined other tech commentators in suggesting the PC era for many of you is drawing to a close. More and more people are using iPads as personal computers — notice I don’t use the word “tablets” because it’s an iPad market pure and simple — and PCs have passed their prime. This doesn’t mean that they will disappear for quite a few years, but they will more and more serve the needs of a smaller user base. That’s inevitable. Indeed, Microsoft’s 90%-odd OS market share barely crosses 50% if you regard mobile devices as computers.
Strange how things turned out. In the old days, you were told you couldn’t go wrong betting on Microsoft, and that Apple wouldn’t last. That was then, this is now. Funny how it all turned out.