OPINION

The Secret Global War to Beat Apple

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.


8 Comments

  • First off this wasn’t intended to be an Apple pounding story. However for those folks that have sent me notes of support (always appreciated) that want to understand why Apple Fans do this stuff pick up a book called "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society". In short it explains why they intentionally misinterpret things like this and react this way.
    .
    This is the link to the short Apple Fan part of True Enough: http://machinist.salon.com/feature/2008/03/18/true_enough_excerpt_2/
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    For clarification this was simply a piece pointing out that Apple had reached a level of success that has others beginning to emulate them with the result being better products for those of us who don’t use Apple products. There is no single company yet doing everything that must be done and that it would take about 2 years for the full effect to hit market.
    .
    I didn’t mention that Apple would likely respond because I thought that was a given. Apple appears to be about to make a move to take the "Air" concept mainstream which should be really interesting. We’ll talk about that next week.
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    But honestly folks Apple is doing a great job I’m sorry that pointing out that others were starting to emulate them got some of you upset. That’s what happens though, folks chased IBM, Microsoft, they are even chasing Google. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people are chasing Apple.
    .
    But chasing and catching, let alone passing, are distinctly different things.
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    Finally, I’m actually not anti-Apple but neither AM I pro-Apple. I use them as both good and bad examples of things depending on the situation. That means for the avid Apple fan I’ll always seem biased against the company because I’m not biased in favor of it. If you want to make sense of that read "True Enough" it explains why people think that way, and will make less likely to be manipulated by folks who understand this way too human weakness.

  • Rob, You have NEVER been an Apple fan and now that all your doom and gloom predictions have proven to be just wrong you suddenly turn course and "thank Apple"? For doing all the things you used to call them out on?
    So now you’re all excited by the thought of a bunch of other companies joining up to topple them? You are truly AM azing!
    I stopped reading your stuff years ago and this headline, while it got my eyes back, only showed me how you still just don’t get it! So tell yeah what…I will wait the two years you’ve mentioned here and we’ll see where we’re at ok?
    I do love how you fail to mention what Apple might come up with in two years. You and the pundits like you always talk about what others are doing in response to Apple TODAY. Totally ignoring that Apple is already working on what will come 2-3 years out.
    This is why the Zune you loved so much has failed. It was pretty much the iPod (forgetting WiFi) of two years prior!
    I hope you’re wrong about these companies killing Apple because if it’s taken all these years for you, Dell, HP and Lenovo to even understand that the stickers were stupid gawd help innovation in this industry without Apple in the mix.

  • Rob says:’It will probably take a year or two for all of this to hit the market’. I guess he’s hoping we won’t remember to check to see if his ‘wow’ promises have come to pass.

  • Wow starts now Ha Ha. Enderle still delusional and living in his own little world of Microsoft=GOD Apple=Satan
    Get over your delusions Rob. Nobody with a two digit IQ has listened to you for years and all though your entertaining to the three digit IQ crowd your extremely limited imagination and complete lack of any credibility makes your articles simply not worth the time to read even if it’s only to laugh AT YOU.

  • First of all, all those stickers and crapware represent co-marketing dollars from Microsoft, Intel and the software guys to the hardware vendors. In turn the hardware guys provide a CPU billboard, in effect, to promote themselves. The vendors may not like the NASCAR effect (butt ugly cases) and all the service calls from dodgy trialware pre-loaded and bogging down system resources, but in the end what can they do to raise hardware margins above 5%. And this will be the economic pressure Microsoft and Intel will levy against the hardware guys.
    Second, the magic of Apple is not just good design, which is AM ongst the best industrial design out there, but that the whole system, from retail purchasing, to operating system, to hardware, to music downloading, is integrated. And by default, having a huge hodgepodge of hardware vendors who both separately and collectively do not have the design acumen AND no ability to provide a seamless, integrated service to the software side, (that being controlled by Microsoft, who took 5 years to produce the monstrosity that is VISTA), you have a failure in the making once again.
    Oh, we will get a few interesting pieces of kit from the CPU and phone guys, but in the end, by the time they even come close to getting their act together, Apple will have gone on to the next great step in personal computing and electronics.

  • Enderle, the penultimate astroturfer for Microsoft. And this nonsense is simply him being a shill for his master.
    He always does his best to spread FUD, for fear people might actually switch to the Mac side, and realize his patron’s products are simply not what he pretends them to be.
    No matter what trend is happening, if Apple is at the top, he spins it to Microsoft’s advantage as the imminent death of the Cupertino company. I simply can’t believe after all these years that anyone still listens to this man with a conflict of interest the size of Texas.

  • Apple is not standing on its laurels and is very aware of these groups. What is interesting is the industry needs a strong Apple and many of these companies were absolutely happy resting on their laurels and allowing Microsoft to tell them what to do until Apple began hurting their business. I AM an Apple loyalist… and former IBM employee. Apple will continue to innovate. I hope that the war does heat up but I find it interesting that it takes a collaboration of behemoth companies to try and out innovate little old Apple. I was at Novell a few months back and had to grin as I watched their desktop linux folks with 2 computers… one a Mac to look at the interface and the other a Linux box to try and copy the Mac interface… The question I have is are these other companies innovating or just simply copying near perfection? I will choose to pay a little more for the true innovator’s wares.

  • Regarding The Secret Global War to Beat Apple
    Three thoughts from the man who thought a brown Zune would be an iPod killer.
    1 Soon PCs won’t come with crap on the outside – it’s not just the stickers Rob, and no mention of the crap inside!
    2 A third party has assembled a whole range of technologies to fix Windows – I guess this is the fix for the crap inside. So you buy a crappy system, then fix it with a whole suite of third party applications from different vendors. This is a pretty good description of the problem Windows is facing right now.
    3 All of this originally crappy, then de-crapped stuff will come in better packages – see first para!
    Come on Rob. Own up!

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