Today I want to talk about how giants die. You would think that when something massive falls, it goes quickly and makes a big, loud bang. In the real world, however, when big things die, they don't do so quickly or loudly. They quietly fade into irrelevance, or to quote some of the already most abused lines,
This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. /T. S. Eliot/
I am, of course, talking about Apple and its last 5 post-Jobs years.
the king is dead
For ages now Apple used to dominate the creative and professional (read "developer") markets, and that's who they generally tried to appeal to. Make it easy to use for the loud people, the ones who actually talk and care about tech, and they'll recommend stuff to the masses.
I mentioned a while ago I'm getting my back tattoed. Whilst lying on the couch at Kamil's shop for my machine-accupuncture session, I noticed Ryan's setup, and it involved a Surface. There are some specifics to how realism artists work, i.e., it's generally off a detailed picture, so his setup had an easily adjustable stand that the Surface was mounted on, and it's just generally easier to adjust the positioning on a touch screen than a laptop. This wasn't the first time I'd seen a Surface in an artist's toolkit either, and seeing them out in the wild just drove the point home, hard.
long live the king
Artists used to work on either Macs or Generic Brands (i.e., HP, Dell, Lenovo, whatever). Artists actually moving to Microsoft products is huge, and either no one at Apple understands how huge this is, or they're just maintaining a really good pokerface. I see a number of reasons for this happening right now.
First, and most important, I think Steve Blank gets it spot-on in his post about why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer. While I encourage you to go read it yourself, the short of it is that visionary CEOs surround themselves with really good executors. When said visionary CEOs depart the company (for whatever reason, including death), an executor gets promoted to CEO. The executor, however amazing they are at driving profits and keeping shareholders happy, are useless at product direction and company image. Even if sales numbers go up, the company image might be that of a greedy, dry corporation no one really wants to deal with.
Second, as a consequence of Tim Cook not being a visionary, Apple hasn't released anything seriously good in ages. They introduced the third gen Retina Mac Pro in 2012, had some minor upgrades like increasing the RAM to 16G and moving the storage to PCIe based, but generally it stayed the same.
It took them four years to come up with… a touch bar. I mean, yes, you can run Nyan cat on it, but
- four years?
- for something that takes away function keys (the F1-F12 row), which are parts of fundamental shortcuts for both programmers and creatives, so it's not an improvement. It's a design regression.
Third, Nadella has yet to make a single mistake. Granted, that's mostly because he's been cleaning up 14 years of Ballmer manure, including
- open-sourcing vast parts of things that used to be Microsoft specific
- embracing Linux for those things
- collaborating with Google
- having Linux on its Azure cloud platform
- adding essential dev tools like SSH to PowerShell
- even joining and funding the Linux Foundation
- and generally making sure developers are interested and able to use Microsoft tooling across all platforms
but all that sends a very strong message of them not being the old, grumpy, litigious, isolationist company of Ballmer's time. On top of all that, they've
- gotten rid of the trainwreck that was their mobile attempts
- put out their best-received OS in quite a while
- delivered a series of very well received hardware
Against a backdrop of Apple's mediocre (at best) performance, this is stellar. And while Apple was busy introducing their brand new, revolutionary touch bar, Microsoft unveiled their version of the iMac. I dare you to watch the promo and not want it.
Every time I show this to people, I have to spend a couple of minutes explaining that no, this is not the new iMac, this is a Microsoft product. Everyone I show this to wants one. In the meantime, the actual iMac hasn't seen any feature upgrades in 4 years.
resurrecting the horse
Obviously, Apple is not going anywhere. It's got more money than the U.S. government. Same as Microsoft, it's going to coast along, disappointing release after disappointing release, until Tim Cook dies, retires, or gets booted, and a visionary CEO is put in place. But will that happen quick enough for them to catch up on what Microsoft, Amazon and Google manage to do in that time? As it stands, Microsoft completely missed the smartphone train thanks to Ballmer. That's gone, and there's no realistic way for them to break into that market. What markets Apple is about to miss out on remains to be seen, but there are bound to be some.
What about you? Where do you think this is going? Let us know in the comments!
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