Saturday, April 10, 2010

Will Apple Make History?

Those of you familiar with the evolution of computing technology over the past few decades are aware of the way historians describe the key "eras" of that history. We begin with mainframe computing, transition to mini-computers, then to personal computers, then to a period we generally call the "Internet" or "Web" era and now seem to be at the beginning of the next era, for which we do not generally agree on a name.

The point we like to make is that, in each era, and eras do not break cleanly and neatly into 10-year periods, there are some firms which dominate the business in terms of market share and influence. What we also have seen, though, is a different set of leaders in each era.

(click on the image for a larger view)

The leaders of one era do not lead the next era. Again, this is a matter of relative influence and character, not an indication of enterprise death, though that has happened in some cases. So the interesting question right now is what companies, or what sorts of companies might arise to challenge even firms that are dominant today, such as Google.

All of this matters to companies in the communications business because each era of computing has created new requirements and opportunities for providers of computer communications. Generally speaking, as computing has migrated into the fabric of everyday life, the need for communications has grown steadily.

Arguably the biggest change in volume of devices requiring communications came with the "Internet" era, when virtually every computing appliance began to require communications.

Today, we can point to smartphones as the latest wave of computing devices that require communications.

To be sure, executives in the business are well aware of the historical implications of changing eras. And the fascinating question right now is  whether any company that has been a leader in any of the previous eras can make the transition to leadership in a subsequent era. The question is interesting simply because it has not ever happened.

But then there is Apple. And one way to make Apple "fit" into the typology is to remove it from the ranks of 1980s leaders, and then place it into the era of mobile Internet computing. Or one can leave Apple where it logically is categorized, and then assume that it is a candidate to make history, by becoming one of the dominant firms in the coming era.

That, in any case, is why some observers might believe Apple is better positioned than Google, as fearsome as Google seemed two or three years ago, as a possible "leading" firm in the era that is coming. Already there is some thinking that "desktop search," as key as it has been to Google's prominence, will be challenged in the era to come by "mobile applications."

It might seem odd to say Apple is a more-likely candidate to lead the next wave of computing than Google. The "safe" answer is to say neither will be a market leader in the next era. But Apple could make history, in more ways than one.

Apple always has been a believer in the power of "closed" ecosystems, at a time when the rest of the world has shifted to "open" systems. Observers who think "network neutrality" is important because it is seen as related to the preservation of an "open" applications environment could well be "barking up the wrong tree" entirely.

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