Why Apple is winning
Call this column "confessions of a reformed Apple hater." I've spent the better part of my career insisting that Apple products were not for me--this after my first job in tech was reviewing them for the now-defunct Mac Home Journal. The company was too controlling, the prices too high, the forced upgrade march too abusive, the closed system too limiting.
Now, just a week ago, I traded in my fourth Android phone (a Samsung Galaxy Nexus) for an iPhone 4S, which just about completes the cycle of Apple in my life. I bought a MacBook Air to replace a balky HP laptop running Windows Vista. I own an iPad because, well, what other tablet would I own? I have an iPod Touch almost solely to power a Bose sound system (and because I wanted to Facetime with my son back before I had the iPhone). And the other day, when my mom was complaining about startup times, printing, and wireless networking, the words, "you should get a Mac" were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Apple is winning. It's doing much more than winning me over, but I think my experiences point, in part, to why Apple is currently and will keep winning well into the near future.
Look at the numbers alone. Apple stock is up almost $100 in just the past month, reaching an all-time high of $509 this week. As Dan Frommer points out at ReadWriteWeb, the company has been riding a decade-long growth period, increasing revenue every year at an ever-increasing pace.
The company is making that money on products that are the vast minorities in their market-share categories: Mac sales hit an all-time high of 5 million, which still rates at maybe 6 percent of estimated global market share. The iPhone clocks in at 23.8 percent of the global smart phone market, according to Gartner. The iPad is the obvious exception here: it is its market, and when you add its sales to global PC sales, it's a big part of the reason that Windows is headed for sub-90 percent market share.
Now, I know 90 percent might sound perfectly enviable, but once the dominoes start falling, they fall fast. Internet Explorer market share dropped below 90 percent in 2005, and is now estimated to be an astonishing 33 percent--with Google Chrome set to surpass it soon, by some estimates.
Windows is losing out primarily to tablet and smart phone sales--exactly the areas where Apple keeps selling increasing numbers of devices. And while Android quickly caught and passed iOS in market share, it lost ground to iPhone 4S in the fourth quarter of 2011.
What's happening here is that Apple products keep getting better--and selling better as a result--and Microsoft and Google are simply giving away the race. Here's how.
Apple's killer strength, as everyone knows, is its laser-like focus on "insanely great" products, coupled with its ability to build an iron-clad ecosystem that just keeps selling more Apple products. And in a time when tech is simultaneously getting more pervasive and more complicated, Apple's focus on simplicity and usability has never been more relevant. "It just works" is all I, at least, have time for when it comes to my tech.
Which leads us to Microsoft and Google. Microsoft has all the pieces of a good ecosystem play, from the operating system to the browser to the software to the game console to the phones to the search engine. Yet none of it ever seems to come together in any cohesive manner, and if anything, it just keeps getting more complicated.
Take Windows 8, Microsoft's forthcoming operating system. It will feature the Metro interface on top of the Windows 8 interface. Metro is designed primarily for tablets, but it will feature prominently on PCs as well (and across the Microsoft landscape, really), and Microsoft is making a major apps push for the Metro experience. Mozilla, for example, will build a Metro version of Firefox.
But Metro is not Windows, and Metro apps won't run on the Windows 8 (Metro's underlying architecture is WinRT, as opposed to Windows' Win32). Nor will they run on older versions of Windows, according to discussions at Microsoft's Windows developer blog. Clunky for developers, limiting for users.
And that's not all. At least right now, a Metro app also won't run on the Xbox OS, even though they both use the Metro interface. And it won't run on Windows Phone, despite its Metro interface. Now, there are rumors of a unified development environment, and it's apparently relatively easy to port Windows Phone apps to Windows 8 (although not vice versa).
But rumors and half-simplifications are all we've got at this point, and the rest of what we've got is a mess. And we have that mess at a time when most Windows users tend to see Windows as a necessary evil that's slower to boot (help us, Windows 8!), uglier, and more insecure than the quickly evolving Mac OS.
Then there's Android. The good news is that very recent research seems to suggest that fragmentation is becoming slightly less of an issue--mainly because the Android universe has settled on either Android 2.2 (Froyo) or Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and a relatively similar set of phones.
But Ice Cream Sandwich is rolling out, albeit slowly, and it will introduce yet another version of Android for developers to contend with. And if developers get annoyed with a platform, you, the consumer suffer: you don't get as many apps, and the apps you get aren't as good. Or, you're not sure whether the app you got works with the version of Android you're running: there aren't many apps yet that are ICS compatible, for example, so if you get your long-awaited Ice Cream Sandwich update, you might find that a few of your apps no longer work--again, a headache you're simply not going to have on iOS. You don't have to think about it--and for a lot of tech fatigued consumers, including me, that's great.
But even worse than fragmentation is the fact that Android is still more complicated, in the same way that Windows is, to operate and troubleshoot. If something goes wrong with your iPhone, you take it to the Apple store, or, at least, forum posters are all talking about the exact same hardware, OS version, and most likely, problem. Dive into Android related forums for troubleshooting information and you're quickly talking about custom ROMs, .apk files, or instructions like this, which I was given as a possible solution for 4G connectivity problems on my Galaxy Nexus: "dial ##778# > edit mode > pw:000000 > modem > rev.a >change ehrpd to enable > menu > commit > reboot."
Tech is mainstream, at this point, and for a lot of people, it's become essential and indispensable. So, given that, computers shouldn't still be this hard. Apple has always understood that simplicity and usability were crucial to user happiness, and although they sometimes simplified (to the point of unnecessary restrictiveness), the simplicity combined with increasingly robust capabilities is a winning combo in this complicated and busy world.
And like I said, it's all upside for Apple, at this point. The software woes that kept people from buying Macs are subsiding--even in the business place. No more contending with awful versions of Microsoft Office, trying to hack Exchange to work with a subpar email client or the hilarious Outlook beta. Companies and users are going cloud-based, so software compatibility doesn't matter as much anymore. All you need is to dump Safari for Chrome and you're good to go. (Ironically, Google's cloud services could inadvertently sell more Macs!)
Or, as our news editor Jim Kerstetter put it here at CNET, "Windows Vista drove my family into the arms of Apple. Now we have a Macbook Pro, a Macbook Air, three iPods, an iPhone, and an Apple router...not to mention two sound systems with iPod docks. Why? Because they don't suck." Sometimes, that's the simplest reason of all.