The Chronicles of Macintosh: The Last Battle


I have this idea for a movie. It starts out with a tech company, Flynn Computer Corp, who’s developing a revolutionary new product. They approach another tech company, Encom, to help develop software for this new product. Encom has never been a competitor to Flynn Computer and therefore Flynn Computer considers Encom to be more of an ally. The villain in this movie is a bigger tech company, C.L.U., which is a direct competitor to Flynn Computer. The movie unfolds with Flynn releasing its revolutionary new product and it’s a success, but the plot thickens as Encom announces a new product of their own that’s nothing more than a clone of Flynn’s. It comes out that Encom betrayed Flynn Computer by stealing some of their secrets and technology. Flynn Computer and Encom go on to become bitter rivals, but Encom’s open business model allow its product to be used anywhere. Flynn keeps their product closed which allows Encom to take over the market. It’s full of intrigue, betrayal, ruthlessness, rich people, and lots of tech stuff.

What, you’ve heard that one before? You know the story. It takes place back in the early eighties. Replace Flynn Computer with Apple, Encom with Microsoft, and C.L.U. with IBM and the revolutionary product was the Mac. Oh, no, that’s not the one you were thinking of? That’s ancient history. You were thinking of Flynn Computer as Apple sure, but Encom is Google, and C.L.U. is Microsoft and the revolutionary new product was the iPhone.

Funny how history seems to repeat itself.

Now, I wasn’t there for either event, so I can’t say for sure what went on. We may never really know, but it’s fun making careless generalizations. We all know what happened the first time around: Microsoft released Windows which built them into a near-Monopoly that almost killed the Mac and Apple. Back then it was Mac vs. Wintel. Some think history is repeating itself with Google and Apple. Except today the fight is on a smaller scale with the iPhone vs. Armdroid, but the result will still be the same. With all the clever names mashed together, and the fact Google seems to have stolen Microsoft’s playbook, I’ve often thought of them as Mooglesoft, but in light of recent news, maybe that’ll change. However, Android, like Windows, is open to anyone who wants to build a device around it. The iPhone is like the Mac in that it’s closed to Apple alone. As for the companies, Google may be Microsoft and, like IBM, Microsoft may turn out to be largely irrelevant in this fight.

However, Android is not Windows and the iPhone is not the Mac. Apple is not the Apple of old either. Back in the 80’s and 90’s telling prospective computer buyers to look past buying a Windows PC and to look at a Mac, you’d be met with blank stares all around. Responses like, “A what? Oh yeah, those are more expensive and they’re not compatible with anything, right?” or “Where do you even buy one?” Occasionally you’d get someone who said “Oh, no! You’re not one of those people are you? Look, I don’t want any trouble, I know Macs are better, I just need to use Windows.” However, most didn’t have a clue what a PC running Windows did, let alone what a Mac was all about.

There seems to be this line of thinking about the history of the Mac that goes something like this: Apple releases the Mac in 1984 and it’s super popular. However, it’s a closed system and Apple doesn’t license it out to any of the other PC makers (Dell, Gateway, etc.). They keep it to themselves and price it through the roof. The Mac enjoys a very brief golden age of dominating the market as the only GUI driven consumer PC. It revolutionizes publishing and graphics design. The term “desktop publishing” is coined around the Mac. Eventually, after fighting off a number of lawsuits and overcoming many false starts, Microsoft develops Windows into something serviceable. Microsoft launches Windows 3.0 and begins eroding away the Mac’s market share and, by the time Windows 95 rolls out, Apple is on the ropes.

Some of this is true. Macs were expensive compared to a similar PC. Apple did create and enjoy certain industries for themselves. And in the late-80’s to early 90’s, if you’d talked to a typical PC user about using graphics-rich applications like Aldus PageMaker or Photoshop, they likely wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. In fact, Microsoft Word existed as a DOS-only application in the PC world up until 1989 when it debuted for Windows, even though it first appeared on the Mac in 1984!

Truth is, the Mac never really had a golden age. In fact, Apple is enjoying some of its best sustained growth and market share with the Mac now. Right now is the Mac’s golden age! More people today know what a Mac is and why they’d want one, than users of 15 years ago did. This is not the case with the iPhone and Android. My observation (and others too) is that by and large all potential smartphone users know about the iPhone and given the choice, most want it. Of course there are geeks and special “anti-Apple” geeks that buy Android because it’s cool and it’s not an iPhone. I think most people that buy Android phones do so because their carrier doesn’t have the iPhone and they dislike AT&T. For many it’s “I can’t get an iPhone and this is the next best thing.” Believe me, you never had this feeling during the Mac vs. Windows battle. It is remarkable the transformation. People that I literally couldn’t have given away a Mac to 15 years ago now regularly call me up and say something like “I just bought a MacBook Pro,” or “I’m looking at an iMac or Mac mini, what do you think I should get?” The awareness and popularity of just about the entire Apple product line is at an all time high.

There’s another difference between Android and Windows, and that is Android is fragmented in a way Windows never was. What is fragmentation? I often hear the word fragmentation used when you see devices like phones get out of sync because there ends up being more than one version of the phone running more than one version of the operating system. To me fragmentation is what happens to devices when there is a combination of progress and diversity. For example, you really need an iPhone 3GS to run iOS 4. Sure, it can run in a limited capacity on a 3G iPhone, but my own personal experience tells me you’d rather not even install it on a 3G. Of course original iPhone owners are out of luck altogether. That’s fragmentation of progress. Verizon’s iPhone 4 will be physically different than AT&T’s version due to the technologies each company employs. This is fragmentation of diversity. These kinds of fragmentation are to be expected and, outside of ex-AT&T users having to buy a new cases for their Verizon iPhones or original iPhone owners not being able to make folders or multitask, the iPhone experience remains somewhat similar across the board. Android, on the other hand, is far more fragmented than the iPhone, Windows, or any system for that matter. Your experience with Android depends as much on the carrier you choose as it does the handset version you buy or when you buy it. We expect technology to march forward. I know at some point my iPhone 4 won’t run iOS 6, but I would never expect to get an iPhone 6 and be stuck running iOS 4. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened with Android.

Case in point: a friend of mine recently picked up an HTC Android phone that is quite capable of running the latest Froyo 2.2, but it’s running 1.5.6. He indicated that the carrier was testing it and hadn’t approved it yet. That was six months ago and as of now, he’s still running the old version, which really has some severe limitations. “That’s because Android is open,” I told him. But kidding aside, it’s true. If Google had their way I’m sure he’d have 2.2, but it’s not up to them. It’s not even up to HTC. It’s up to his carrier, in his case a large, but regional one that probably doesn’t have the resources to manage all this. Then again, there’s a recent article that talks about carriers holding back upgrades for new Android devices even for users locked into 2-year contracts. He supposes he could “root it” and get 2.2 on there somehow, but hasn’t yet to my knowledge. Probably because who wants to risk it and then not have your phone work, as a phone.  You could get an unlocked Nexus S and have the pure Android experience as Google intends it, or a Droid X on Verizon and have the experience Verizon wants you to have, or you could an HTC or EVO on another carrier and have yet another experience altogether. Each of these phones runs a different version of the Android OS, and with the exception of the Nexus S, each is loaded with bloatware from the carrier and possibly other software ”enhancements” from the handset maker of their Android phone.

(ed. note: Installing custom editions of the Android OS is actually quite common and it’s possible thanks to the open nature of the phones. Though some carriers are actively fighting it, others like T-Mobile seem to understand the value of supporting the Android community. -Mike)

Now that the iPhone has finally come to Verizon – probably Android’s biggest customer base – it’ll be interesting to see if my beliefs (and others) are correct in that it will erode away at Android’s success. Whatever the case, I don’t expect it to happen overnight. I don’t expect lines around the block come February 10th. I think it’s too close to iPhone 5 at this point for most people to run out and buy what is essentially last year’s model. I’m also sure there are a number of Droid users who are still locked into a 2-year service commitment that they’re nowhere near able to break at this point. Same with AT&T customers, as many upgraded to iPhone 4 last summer. You don’t have to think too long about the cost of breaking old contracts and starting new ones to realize it’s an expensive proposition. Add to that there will always be deals for Android phones we may never see for the iPhone, two for one deals, free deals, etc. I fully expect to see an Android phone fall out of my box of Frosted Flakes at some point soon. At some point we may see a previous gen iPhone sold for as little as $49 (ed. note: It’s happening already… -Mike), but I think that’ll be the extent of it.

However, that being said, switching from an Android phone to an iPhone isn’t as expensive as switching from a PC to a Mac was 15 years ago. Mac’s were more expensive and didn’t have the software support that Windows machines did. The cost of computers and software prohibited trying something out. The iPhone has more apps for it than the Mac ever did and the cost of the iPhone isn’t what worries people, it’s the recurring monthly data plan charges. But that’s the same no matter what phone you have. In this way, the carrier plays a role in this that was never present in the Mac vs. Windows battle.

Deals or not — and contracts aside — time will tell if the iPhone, now that it’s on Verizon, will begin eroding away some of the “Droid Army’s” market share. It already has mind share … which is a lot more than the Mac ever had.