The Secret Global War to Beat Apple
Through its success in recent years, Apple has set the bar high for consumer devices. Now, various companies have products in the works whose sole purpose is to take market share away from Apple, by matching what it does well and exploiting its weaknesses. Columnist Rob Enderle looks at what's in the works.
Apr 21, 2008 4:00 AM PT
Over the last couple of weeks, I've been meeting with vendors all over the country that range from those that build PCs to those that build tools and parts, to those that build back-end solutions. One common message has come through. They all are targeting Apple as the company whose performance they most want to beat.
This has more implications for those who don't currently buy Apple products than -- at least near term -- it has to do with Apple fans. Regardless, the projects are focused on learning what Apple does well, and what it sucks at, and then creating products that are significantly better. We'll talk about that this week.
In addition, we'll look at the product of the week -- which isn't yet the new book on Apple, Inside Steve's Brain, because I haven't had a chance to read it yet -- but GPS Snitch, a product that allows you to track someone secretly. I've been using this to annoy my wife much of this week -- and it works.
Apple as a Target/Example
For well over a decade, I've used Apple both as an example of how to do things right and how to do them wrong. For most of this time, it has been more effective as a negative example because the companies I advise viewed Apple as a firm always on the cusp of going out of business.
Over the last year this has changed dramatically, and suddenly Apple is the company that is more of an example of how to do things right than wrong and the result will be some amazing advancements in user experience. We will walk through some of what is coming in a moment.
The change is pronounced, and it ranges from devices like Intel's new MID (mobile Internet device) platform to as-yet unreleased MP3/video players (some of which are better than the nano but priced like the Shuffle), laptops, desktops and monitors.
Apple is suddenly influencing a broad range of products that aren't even in its space including appliances, TVs, cable set-top boxes and automotive interiors. My friends, we are about to be pounded to death, with a smile on our faces, with Apple-influenced offerings.
Building a Better Apple-Influenced PC
On the PC side, and I can't yet name the vendors, there is a massive push to eliminate the stickers, crapware and contract language on top, on the screen and on the bottom of premium products. In the fourth quarter, one of the ways you'll be able to determine if the PC OEM (original equipment manufacturer) is focused on improving your user experience will be just how hard it is to find anything stuck to the outside of your new laptop or desktop PC. We are talking about the emergence of entire lines of pristine products that don't look like NASCAR advertising spin-offs. Microsoft and Intel, I'm told, are putting up one hell of a fight, but many of the vendors are holding strong and making sure the product you buy looks as good on the first day as it possibly can.
I've seen some of the coming products that potentially will out-Apple Apple. They go farther than the Lenovo ThinkPad X300, and are showcases for what can be done with a very small product. Other laptops use the new hybrid graphics systems from Nvidia and ATI to provide a near perfect blend of long battery life and high performance and switch dynamically between the two modes to better appeal to graphics professionals (Apple's bread and butter) and gamers alike.
Thin, simple and sexy is the growing design trend with a huge push toward colors, which these OEMs believe will meet Apple where it is strongest (thin, simple, sexy) and beat Apple where it is weakest (choice/battery life/ports). However, this isn't just about hardware and appearance -- they are thinking about back-end services, user experience and working around Microsoft.
Building a Better Apple Solution
Many of the vendors get that the back end of the PC is one of the places that Apple currently has an advantage, but as good as iTunes is, anyone who has used it knows that it can be particularly irritating to a Windows user because of its Apple roots. This has been analyzed, quietly tested, and groups of largely ex-Apple people have come up with what I think will be something vastly better than iTunes. However, the details and the source for this offering are still months off and Microsoft will likely be as surprised as Apple will by the result.
Phoenix Technologies has been working quietly and acquiring a number of companies to build a solution that is being offered and adopted by OEMs specifically designed exceed with Windows many of Apple's historic advantages.
Ranging from virus resistance to synchronization between products to invisible migrations, each of the technologies Phoenix has quietly acquired appears to be secretly designed into the perfect Apple-beating tool set. Watch the future acquisitions this company makes closely because Apple appears to be its target, and its goal isn't to just beat Apple but to provide an offering that will make obsolete Apple's current advantages.
In what is the biggest cross-vendor effort of its type since the early '90s, the OEMs are building and funding projects to "fix Windows." I can't go into detail about who is doing what, but some are essentially efforts to find a way to recreate the MacOS.
It hits me that if the BeOS was around and up to date today it would have a ready market and that there is a lot of heavy lifting going on that, while dramatically different from vendor to vendor, is all focused on accomplishing the same things. The most visible efforts are those surrounding the MID platform with the Lenovo effort standing at the front of the pack, but there is a lot going on you don't see yet that will change the market forever once they are released.
Big Improvements Are Coming
I'm running out of my allotted space, but packaging (Apple likes out-of-box experiences), advertising (expect to see some Apple vs. PC type of ads going the other way), and some truly amazing service technology that will not only identify problems better but fix them automatically and eliminate reboots due to driver updates are all expected shortly.
It will probably take a year or two for all of this to hit the market, but when it does, the market will be forever changed. Anticipate these coming changes and realize that we'll largely have Apple to thank, both for direction and for being such a great place to incubate people who have now gone and taken what they learned at Apple elsewhere.
Product of the Week: The GPS Snitch
I've always been a James Bond kind of gadget nut and the GPS Snitch has been a lot of fun to play with. It is a small rechargeable battery run connected GPS (Global Positioning System) device that you can put on something that moves (car, backpack, and motorcycle) to track using Google Maps.
I'm tracking my wife, who is on a cross-country trip to pick up a new puppy as I write this. I could not only tell she had stopped at a rest stop but also could actually accurately describe which parking space she was in and what was around her (in terms of permanent plants and buildings) where she had parked.
This could be used to keep track of where your buddy takes the vehicle you lent them, where your kid goes when he or she is supposed to be going to work or school, or as kind of a cheap form of LoJack. For parents needing to know where their child is (and kidnapping remains a high concern for some) this could provide peace of mind, and if you have a loved one with a medical condition, or an aging parent with Alzheimer's this could provide one way to keep track of them. It even has a pet mode and costs $399 or about the price of a high-end iPod.
Outside of just being used to annoy your spouse (who can't seem to find it and that alone is worth the price of admission), this thing can give you peace of mind and that is the reason it is my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.