Last week, a number of Apple supporters took me to task for my comment that Apple made the technology equivalent of sugar water and that Steve Jobs gave up on his goal of changing the world. I’m hardly original in thinking this way. It does amaze me that not a single Apple fan cared about global warming, philanthropy or even Apple’s lack of computing prowess. They earn their reputations every week.
This week, I’ll argue that Apple did unintentionally change the world by making Windows (especially Windows 7), Palm and Google’s Android better. I’ll then discuss what I think “changing the world” means and use Marvell as the example of how to do that.
I’ll close with my product of the week: an inexpensive little home server that uses Marvell’s Sheeva Plug Computing platform and could represent the beginning of a shift that could be as big as the change ushered in by the original x86 processor.
One Competitor at a Time
When Apple started, both Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs appeared to have a dream that wasn’t much different from what Bill Gates and Paul Allan envisioned. They wanted to change the world of computing. In fact, their 1984 ad, which still ranks as the best Super Bowl ad of all time, basically imagines a time when Apple replaces IBM as market leader.
However, history tells a different tale — Bill Gates saw Apple’s potential but realized the company couldn’t scale to the level both men were shooting for, and he tried to license the operating system. After Bill was refused, he created a clone. As a result, it was Microsoft — not Apple — that drove the PC revolution and actually changed the world.
There is no doubt that Microsoft would not have been able to do that had it not been for Apple showcasing the idea. I think it makes sense to argue that had Apple cooperated with Microsoft, there might have been not only shared dominance, but also a better solution for users as a result. That isn’t what happened, though, and the real change came as a result of what Microsoft — not Apple — actually accomplished. There is no argument that Microsoft is vastly more powerful than Apple is.
With the iPhone, Apple did shake up the market, and there are iPhone-like products from companies as wide ranging as Samsung, LG Electronics, Research In Motion, HTC and Palm. Microsoft is once again looking at what Apple has done and is pitching an iPhone-like platform to Verizon, among others.
The Palm Pre — and I played with it for a while — is actually better, in a lot of ways that count, than the iPhone. The Android not only is nearly as good, but also has similar scale advantages to what Microsoft had against Apple in the early years.
There is little doubt that the iPhone began the change, but it appears that one of a number of vendors will now likely end up as dominant. Apple’s continued threats against Palm indicate it doesn’t have a good competitive response. If the pattern repeats itself, Apple once again will have come up with a concept that someone else will use to dominate a market.
In short, Apple simply enabled another company to actually change the world. The Apple Newton kind of plowed the field for Palm. (As a side note, here is some interesting analysis on the coming patent fight between the two firms).
Apple’s Windows 7 Renovation Effort
I just finished a deep dive on Windows 7. I installed the Release Candidate (RC) version on three machines, and I now have a good grasp of the product, the launch and the surrounding ecosystem. This is the best-prepared Microsoft has ever been since I started covering the company and, to a large extent, it owes a lot of its success to Apple.
The Mac vs. PC ads served as a better motivator than any Microsoft manager could have, keeping an incredibly complex company focused on the items Apple signified were the most damaging, until there weren’t any left to focus on.
In addition, Microsoft has gone beyond Apple in areas like virus protection, in that it now is building its own free antivirus product, while Apple seems to be emulating the Microsoft of the ’90s and ignoring the problem.
Until now, Apple has been blessed, because Windows has been more vulnerable and more prevalent. However, after Windows 7 launches and users get free AV, Windows will be more secure — on paper, anyway — and the virus writers will likely switch their focus to Apple. Given that Apple vulnerabilities are demonstrated every year at the Black Hat conference, this probably won’t end well for Apple. Still, it played a major part in propelling Microsoft’s aggressive move to improve Windows.
For some reason, this reminds me of the joke about the two guys running from the bear. One stops to put on running shoes and his soon-to-be-ex-buddy says, “What are you doing? You’ll never outrun the bear.” To which he responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear — I just have to outrun you.” The virus writers are the bear, and Microsoft is putting on the running shoes. In the end, Apple made Windows 7 better — and I bet it will regret this a lot, come October.
Marvell Changing the World
I was at the CITRIS press event last week to watch one of Marvell’s founders, a UC Berkeley graduate, passionately describe her shared vision to change the way engineers are taught so that more could be capable of building companies like Microsoft and Apple. This was not about selling Marvell products, but about creating a change that could restore the kind of entrepreneurship that originally created the Silicon Valley and has been absent of late.
The idea behind CITRIS is to create a unique incubator that rewards students for the creation of marketable products rather than for artificial research assignments, cookie-cutter term papers, or how creatively they can game the system.
Too many kids are coming out of the education system with their only real skills being video gaming and taking credit for others’ work. This is a huge drag on the businesses that hire them. The CITRIS and Marvell efforts are designed to change that and, based on what students told me at the event held on the CITRIS Berkeley campus, they’re excited about what they’re learning, because they aren’t wasting their time on pointless exercises. They are building real products and real business models.
What also makes CITRIS different is the blend of social sciences, legal experts, business experts and programmers under one roof. CITRIS is now in the process of trying to replicate this project around the world, and it should be successful, because it has already generated 76 startups that have captured the interest of some of the largest funding bodies in the world.
If this works, it will make learning about technology not only one of the most interesting university choices, but also one of the most lucrative for both the university and the student. To me, that is the kind of change that truly goes beyond sugar water. CITRIS could immortalize the folks who backed it and represent a massively powerful world change.
Wrapping Up: Apple’s Sugar Water
In the end, here’s a snapshot of the three companies I discussed last week: Google is indexing the world, backing a smart grid and solar energy, and making charities profitable. Microsoft made Apple’s 1984 vision real and the PC successful, while Bill Gates is the leading philanthropist in the world.
Apple, on the other hand, only leads the world in iPods — the technology equivalent of sugar water. Apple really isn’t even in the same league as the other two companies, although being a leader in that league appeared to be its initial goal. So, Steve, do you really want to change the world? Or have you settled for selling sugar water now?
Product of the Week
The Pogoplug, based on Marvell’s Sheeva plug computing platform, is my product of the week for two reasons: One, it is coming from a company that is trying to change the world in a way I think we need to see it changed; and two, because I really think this idea — still in its infancy — could, by itself, change the world of computing.
The Pogoplug is a US$99 server that you attach to a USB storage device (for instance an Iomega Prestige 1 TB drive that costs about $100) to create an incredibly easy-to-use and inexpensive server. The functionality is limited to local and remote access, but think of having your own Terabyte server for under $200.
What makes this revolutionary is that the concept is little dedicated computers each running one key application and costing little more than the application might cost alone. This potentially takes the whole idea of multiprocessors and virtualization and turns it on its ear, and the concept could eventually revolutionize how we build and use both home computers and data centers. Microsoft has been suggesting a rethinking of data centers using a similar concept.
Watch this space. I really don’t think Marvell truly knows yet what it has here, and the word “disruptive” barely scratches the surface of how something like this could change the world.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.