Apple continues to ride high. After years in the doldrums, the resurrection orchestrated by Steve Jobs has been nigh-on miraculous in both scale and longevity. But how long can it last?
The iPod continues to dominate the portable music player market with its slick branding, cool looks and simple interface. Integration with the similarly successful iTunes has created a strong symbiotic relationship that will extend the semi-monopoly even when the iPod is technically inferior to rivals. Today the iPod is so successful that it has achieved that rare feat for a brand name and become a common noun.
Outside the music market, Apple continues to build sexy computers that are gaining increasing attention from the home user. As web, email, and word processing facilities are commoditised and web-enabled, so the old issue of compatibility has disappeared. With computer literacy spreading, so the problem of being familiar with one or other operating system becomes less prevalent: people are more willing and able to switch to Macs. And as digital media has become the new core use for a PC, so the media-friendly Mac has gained friends.
Apple laptops? Well it’s hard to argue with such sexy slabs of aluminium.
So it’s all rosy? Not quite.
Apple wins on a combination of capability and cool. Its products are both easy to use and un-geeky enough to appeal to the general public (particularly women). But both of these advantages are under assault.
On the desktop front, while I don’t hold out great hopes for Windows Vista being sufficiently capable or cool to cause Apple problems, there is another challenger out there: Linux. Although widely dismissed as a potential desktop OS for the tech-fearing consumer, distributions like Ubuntu have been making quiet strides to the point where they present a genuine alternative. Given the increasing computer literacy described above, it really isn’t hard to see people making the switch from Windows to Linux as easily as they might make the switch to Mac OS. Given the cost difference it is easy to see the appeal to students and the like, as well as system builders who might offer it as an option, if nothing else. All it needs is to be cool.
The increasing role for the PC in delivering digital media also provides an opportunity for Linux distributions to get further in to the consumer market. Enthusiasts have balked at the high cost (and initially exclusive distribution) of the Windows Media Centre OS, and while it remains probably the best solution for the (imagined) problem, there are many Linux-based challengers out there.
Apple is probably on the right track here though, by not delivering a product for this space at all. My experience of media centre PCs of all flavours tells me that they are not quite ready for the mainstream — and nor is the mainstream yet demanding them. Still, when the time is right there will be a range of Linux-based options for a robust, functional operating system that will compete with whatever MS and Apple might put out there.
With regards to portable devices, the real challenger is not Microsoft’s Zune or any of the current crop of brand name (and less well known) Asian CE manufacturers. While they might be able to create flashy devices that outlast the iPod’s battery life or have better sound quality, they will never match Apple for cool. But a couple of other companies have had even greater success than Apple at making geek toys cool and getting them in to the pockets of the tech-fearing consumer: Nokia, SonyEricsson, and Motorola.
The RAZR was the watershed: a genuinely fashionable mobile phone. One designed from the ground up to win on form as much as function, not just to have some daft plastic covers stuck on. Lesson learned: the mobile phone manufacturers are delivering ever greater features but also putting some effort in to the cool factor.
Of course Apple plans to launch a phone in the new year, but I’m of the opinion that it is unlikely to be a success on the level of the iPod. More likely another Newton.
And this is where Apple’s success begins to fall apart. Cool is by nature not something that you can hold on to. It is inevitably dulled by success and when that happens the trendmakers begin to look elsewhere. You can hold on to it for so long by spending big (think U2 limited editions, Eminem adverts…etc), but eventually the new cool will overtake you.
On the mobile side, Nokia has a devoted userbase of millions. All they need to do is make their music-friendly products a little less techie and a little more cool and they have an iPod-beater at their fingertips. Especially if someone can force iTunes integration to be opened up to the market (I’m sure some marketing dollars are being spent around Brussels at the moment). SonyEricsson is already there with its Walkman phones, and only suffering slightly from the damaged cool of its Sony parent. Motorola has the best marketing, and also a seemingly limitless budget.
For the desktop and media centre, one of the main fashion trends is rolling in Linux’ favour. Geek chic is going mainstream, with a generation of gamers who grew up with 8-bit games apparently at the fore, creating clothes, movies, art and music from their pixellated memories. This combined with the eco-feel of its brand might be just what Ubuntu needs to make it cool.
I’m not writing Apple off. It will continue to innovate and make successful products. But it appears to be at the top of its curve. And the common noun ‘iPod’ looks set to long outlast the dominance of the device that spawned it.