Each of the last five decades in technology was defined largely by the decisions of one of the major vendors: the 1970s by AT&T; the 80s by IBM; the 90s by Microsoft; and the 2000s by Apple. Google is the favorite for defining the 2010s, or teen decade — and that’s a good focus for discussion as we get ready for a battle royal this week between the company of the 2000s and the company of the 2010s.
Another thing to consider: whether the company of the 90s can come back, or whether Sony will be the next Apple after Steve Jobs leaves.
I’ll kick off the new decade with what could be the best smartphone so far as my product of the week.
The 80s and 90s
I’ll skip the fall of AT&T and jump ahead to the birth of the PC and Microsoft’s effectively taking the market lead from IBM. The transition was from a vertically integrated company that dominated hosted computing — mainframes were largely leased going into the 80s — and created the PC but failed to really understand its creation. In crippling the PC Jr and in trying to reverse the decision to create a vendor-independent OS, it lost the market to Microsoft, which stepped in and, along with Intel, owned the PC generation.
Microsoft in the 90s forgot its PC, user and developer roots and went after the IBM model of enterprise ownership. I think some of this can be blamed on analysts that constantly said that Microsoft was not an enterprise company, and Microsoft eventually gained enterprise prominence but sacrificed much of what made it successful to get it.
“Embrace and extend,” a strategy that worked very well for Microsoft on the desktop, was overlooked with respect to Unix in favor of an old IBM-like forced march to Windows NT and Server, and the market rebelled and created Linux.
This left a gap, and something unexpected happened: A vertically integrated company came up to fill that gap.
The Apple Years
I certainly did not think the 2000s were going to be defined by Apple. At the beginning of the decade, the company was on life support; it seemed unwilling to adopt industry standards for hardware, and it seemed unwilling to take chances with anything new.
That all changed early in the decade, as Apple adopted Intel technology, picked up the iPod, and refocused on providing the best customer experience possible. It even went after developers with the iPod and iPhone, effectively taking away what had been much of Microsoft’s strength in the 90s. Even though Microsoft had more reach, Apple had more influence — and when Apple made CES redundant with the launch of the iPhone, Microsoft’s entire model was put into question. At the end of the decade, Apple’s CEO was No. 1, and Microsoft’s didn’t even make the list.
While you might argue the Google had the idea for the application store first — and Apple the idea for hosted applications for small devices at first — it was Apple that got its application store working first, and Google that has been more aggressive with hosted applications setting the stage for the next decade. The biggest likely problem for Apple and Steve Jobs this decade is what happens when the two separate.
2010s Google’s Decade
It certainly looks that way — but remember, I doubt many of us would have bet the last decade would have been Apple’s at the beginning. A lot of things can happen in 10 years. The market is clearly moving in Google’s direction, however, with content moving off paper and to the Web at an incredible pace, traditional forms of media losing funding in favor of Web-based services and applications, and 4G networks expected to define the always-connected consumer by year end.
The first major battle will occur this week during CES between the current king and the contender. If rumors are true and Google fields its branded smartphone, smart-tablet, and smart-book products, this could be a battle royal, with Apple overmatched.
CES is expected to be a smart wave of offerings largely based on the Android platform, and the early versions I’ve seen are impressive. We haven’t yet seen the Apple smart-tablet (the “iSlate” name just surfaced as I was writing this), but the mismatched products (lots of Android offerings, one new Apple product) are reminding me a lot of the early PC wars — with one exception. Apple enters this fight vastly stronger than it was for a similar fight in the 80s, and as the largely unchallenged premium vendor with its own dedicated line of stores.
As a result, while Apple may not be able to define the 2010s, it could continue to do very well — much as Lexus does fine in what has been a Toyota market. Its only risk is that someone else could decide to focus on this premium segment, but few seem willing to invest in what is needed to do that. So, just because Google could define the next decade, this doesn’t mean Apple will fail — only become less significant. But could others steal.
Can Yahoo Pull an Apple-Like Upset?
If I were to pick a company that might be able to steal the market — one that had as little chance as Apple did at the beginning of the decade and yet surprise us all at the end — it would be Yahoo. It could easily be a battle over content rather than devices, and Yahoo is an Internet publishing company. However, failure doesn’t naturally breed success. To make this happen, Yahoo would need a visionary CEO who had a clear grasp of where to take the company.
Carol Bartz is no Steve Jobs. I’ve been watching Yahoo closely of late, and I don’t think it actually knows, at an executive level, what business it’s in yet. If it did, it would be moving to aggregate the social networking sites around it and moving on opportunities to stand out, rather than behaving like it’s somehow in the packaged software business. If there were an iPod-like opportunity, Bartz likely wouldn’t even see it — and the chance of such an opportunity even happening once is slim.
Can Microsoft Come Back?
Microsoft may represent Google’s unsuccessful future, because just as Microsoft focused too closely on becoming IBM, Google seems to be repeating many of Microsoft’s mistakes. The advantage of leaving the decade under as much pressure as Microsoft is under is that this may — and I use this word on purpose because it isn’t a given — give it a wake-up call and refocus it on its own proven successful practices.
Microsoft remains a formidable company and has resources that dwarf Yahoo’s and Apple’s, but it needs to develop the courage to be itself, cut underperforming units, focus back on its original partners, users and developers for leverage, and stop being its own worst enemy. Right now, the firm isn’t making the kind of difficult decisions that defined Apple’s or IBM’s turnaround, but that could change. There is no doubt in my mind that Microsoft can be great again and that Steve Ballmer could turn the firm around; the question is, will he?
Will Sony Survive?
One final thought is that Sony has been on death watch for a decade, and given that Steve Jobs recreated Apple to be a better Sony, Sony actually has the easiest path to success. All it has to do is copy Apple. Steve Jobs has laid out a visible template of how to turn a company like Sony around — yet Sony seems to be resisting the lesson.
Sony could actually be a better Apple, because Apple, in effect, modeled itself after Sony, and the original should be able to overcome the copy. If it doesn’t, it won’t be because it doesn’t have the potential — Apple has showcased the existence of this potential. Instead, it will be because it lacked the courage to follow Apple’s lead. If that’s the case, maybe it shouldn’t survive.
Product of the Week: HTC Windows Mobile HD2
A company I left off this list is HTC, a firm that didn’t exist a decade ago and that now builds the best Android (Droid) and Windows Mobile smartphones. It built the Nexus One, which is the phone Google is rumored to be pitting against the iPhone shortly, and it is the best Android-based phone yet.
However, it isn’t in the market yet, and the HD2 is.
This rich multitouch phone has reviewed in line with the current generation iPhone, and its only downside is the fact that you can’t actually buy it in the U.S. yet.
The reason I picked this phone is that is demonstrates that with Windows Mobile, Microsoft could compete to be vendor of this decade if it stepped up, properly backed a partner like HTC, and tried for the gold ring.
If it doesn’t try, it will never make it.
The HTC HD2 is my product of the week because it represents what could be and, as Apple showcased last decade, what could be can be amazing.
Have a wonderful New Year folks, thanks for staying with me.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.