Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Apple and the Decline of Microsoft

If the take-away is that big companies can sometimes lose track of how to compete effectively with smaller, nimbler, more innovative successors, there's nothing new to that story - it bears repeating, it's something companies should try to remember as they get big, and it's something most companies seem to forget given enough time, success, and/or an unfortunate choice of leadership. Paul Krugman argues that Apple could follow Microsoft into decline, and that it's situation could potentially be worse as it sells consumer products and thus isn't as insulated from market forces as Microsoft, which benefits from having lazy IT departments refuse to support Apple products. But that makes Apple more like Hewlett-Packard, a once great and innovative company that produced quality products, then lost its way under incompetent, bean-counting management that slashed its research budget and didn't care about quality. For that matter, you could compare the future theoretical decline of Apple to the past, actual decline of Apple, where bad decisions by Steve Jobs and his successor all-but-destroyed the company before Steve Jobs returned from NeXT with a much improved vision for the company. But for Apple's reinvention of itself, odds are that we wouldn't be fretting over whether the next iPhone will be only incrementally improved over the prior model and that Android would still be a Blackberry clone. Let's recall, Apple's big profits come not from software, but from hardware.

Krugman writes,
The story of how that state of affairs arose is tangled, but I don’t think it’s too unfair to say that Apple mistakenly believed that ordinary buyers would value its superior quality as much as its own people did. So it charged premium prices, and by the time it realized how many people were choosing cheaper machines that weren’t insanely great but did the job, Microsoft’s dominance was locked in.
On the contrary, I think Apple is painfully aware of the fact that many consumers, particularly those at the low end of the market, are choosing Android devices. Although Apple still suffers more than a bit from the Steve Jobs attitude of, "We know what you want better than you do" (an attitude Krugman notes in a blog entry on the subject) - and in fairness to Steve Jobs, at least during his second tenure at Apple he was often correct - they don't market their most profitable products in the manner that Krugman suggests. They're not trying to convince you to buy a $599 iPhone versus a bottom-of-the-market $100 Android phone. They're trying to get you to sign up for a two year contract with your phone carrier, with much of the purchase price being built into your service contract and your nominal purchase price being not much different from a low-end phone.

In terms of quality and pricing, for quite some time Apple's computers have stacked up quite well, feature-for-feature, with the diminishing pool of well-constructed PC's. But it has been my impression from the lack of development of their desktop market that they aren't interested in trying to make a huge - or even a modest - push for market share within that diminishing market. Not surprisingly, they like to manufacture products that are profitable, something that very few cell phone manufacturers do. They and Samsung presently sell cellular phones at a profit. Thanks to the increased quality of competing products, I suspect that Samsung will soon find itself facing a commoditized market for higher-end cell phones and Apple will be the last cell phone company that makes a significant profit from its hardware. Then, barring the unlikely event that we get something as disruptive to the industry as another iPhone, Apple will no longer be able to sell its cell phones for an appreciable premium over the commodity price - and the entire industry will have to glean its profits elsewhere. Apple is trying to establish a reliable ecosystem - hardware and software that work well together, allow most products that remain in service to be upgradable to the current operating system, and are easy and reliable platforms upon which third party software and hardware developers can manufacture apps and iOS-compatible products. Despite Android's quality, the fragmentation of its operating system and the fact that many phone manufacturers don't care if a two-year-old handset can be upgraded will impair its ability to offer the same opportunities. Apple intends to make money, even in a commoditized market, from app sales and licensing fees.

Krugman appears to be focusing on major disruption rather than modest innovation, even as he brings Yahoo! and Marisa Mayer into the discussion. If the resurgence of Yahoo! is a story to be believed... and I'm a skeptic... its resurgence will be the result of improvements at the margins. And that story would not be atypical. The biggest fortunes tend to be made not by the person who comes up with a concept or invents the early version, but with the person who comes up with an upgraded version of the product - something that ships better, something that's easier to manufacture, something that's easier to use. When Steve Jobs saw early versions of a window-based operating system and mouse at HP's then-famous labs, he saw the potential to transform them and turn them into products for a mass market. Jobs wasn't the inventor of the cell phone, display panel or touch screen - but he and his company came up with an innovative way to combine them.

Microsoft committed some odd, oversized errors over the past couple of decades that have contributed to its downward slide. As Krugman notes, they didn't see the potential of the iPhone, but more than that they didn't see the potential of the Internet. As Krugman noted, a lot of Microsoft's past success was built on its monopoly power, but its best and most profitable products were not major innovations. Windows built upon work that Microsoft performed for Apple, in developing the operating system for the Macintosh. It's office suite built upon software products that offered similar functionality, perhaps with modest improvement (but often without, or with 'innovative' features that you couldn't wait to turn off), and became dominant through bundling. Its browser became dominant through bundling, leading to the decline of Netscape, but it lost interest in developing a cutting edge browser pretty much the moment it no longer perceived Netscape as a threat.

Contrary to Krugman's inferences, having never been a user of Apple products, Apple did not always have a quality advantage over Microsoft or its associated hardware developers. Windows 95 incorporated some features that it took Apple years to emulate, and after Jobs left Apple's hardware quality plummeted. For that matter, for all of its innovative features, the early Macintosh suffered from having too few programs and too little RAM, as well as the odd design compromises that came from Steve Jobs' disdain for internal fans. Microsoft's present plight emerges from its failure to effectively enter new markets as the old ones faded - as operating systems became "good enough" that companies felt no need to upgrade every year or two, and as its Office suite became "good enough" that any changes it made from year-to-year were not likely to bring new sales, and as its customers tired of its game of modifying Word files such that you had to jump through hoops to save a document that would open on an older version of its software. In that sense we're back to the legitimate fear for Apple as a hardware company - that unless it comes up with a remarkable hardware innovation it's looking at a future where its products are commoditized and while, despite some people sticking with the company due to their library of iOS apps, many customers come to see little reason not to change platforms. Apple is trying to look beyond that day, and Google is struggling to convince Android developers to follow standards that will allow it to keep up.

Apple's biggest problems seem to come from copyright law, and entrenched monopolies and oligopolies. It is having difficulty coming up with a television product because of the difficulty of licensing content from media companies. Its products rely on Internet bandwidth, with many customers obtaining that bandwidth from cable monopolies. The iPhone demonstrated how you can create a breakthrough, profitable product in a tired, commoditized market, but without content there's no apparent room for a similar move in television. Also, most televisions these days would qualify as reasonably powerful computers, so it's not clear that Apple could offer a disruptive product that would not quickly be emulated, perhaps less artfully, by its competitors. People talk about an iWatch, and I think it is inevitable that Apple will produce a wearable device of some sort... although I don't think it is likely to be a watch in the sense that we have traditionally used that word, either in how it's worn or what it does, but all we can do at this point is speculate.

Google is, in a sense, playing Microsoft to Apple's iOS, offering a version of highly similar software for free, Microsoft Internet Exploder vs. Netscape's browser. I sometimes wonder if Google will continue to provide free operating system development for the world, or at least if it will be as quick to make its greatest innovations part of the core as opposed to part of a proprietary add-on, particularly as it attempts to spin Motorola up into a dominant manufacturer of Android phones. As with all of this stuff, time will tell.

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