Apple’s role in the PC’s downfall

There’s no question PC sales are down. Nor is there any end to the fall in sight.

This could be the post-PC era. Or maybe something more subtle is happening. Either way, the familiar personal computer no longer tops the technology food chain.

How the iPhone meteor killed dinosaur PCs, says the decline is due to Apple’s 2007 phone launch.

Dave Lane thinks it overstates Apple’s role.

Lane writes:

“I’m not convinced that the iPhone was the reason for the change in the PC market. I think it might be a factor, but there’re many other things, to do with the maturity curves and performance gains of PC hardware, and the relative lack of sophistication/advancement of PC software (by which I mean software and underlying operating systems running on PCs regardless of make).

“Also, I’m not convinced that smart mobile devices only came about because of Apple, although I acknowledge that Apple’s initial heavy investment in the iPod and iPhone accelerated the speed with which touch-based devices achieved the necessary manufacturing scale to become widely affordable.

“I’d argue that the pervasiveness of non-PC computing devices owes at least as much to open source platforms like Android and cloud-based infrastructure (which all depends on open source software under the bonnet) as it does to Apple. [1]

Broad sweep of history

Lane has a good first point. He makes the case for the broad sweep of history applied to technology.

It’s a complex idea and hard to do justice in passing. But here goes:

This view of history says the big picture is more important than individuals.

So, say, there would have a Russian Revolution early last century with or without Lenin’s involvement because the right conditions were all in place at the time. Or a European would have crossed the Atlantic at the end of the Middle Ages, it just happened to Christopher Columbus working for the Spanish.

With or without you

In a technology context, ty ou can read this as: The drop-off in PC sales would have happened even if Apple never made the iPhone.

This is right. Towards the end of this century’s first decade, the PC market in the developed world reached saturation. Anyone who wanted a PC had one.

Prices were, in relative terms, cheaper than ever. And there was a glut of reasonable quality second-hand machines. This made the technology available to almost everyone in the world’s richer countries.

This means the PC market, at least in the developed world, had become a replacement market. There were no new markets to expand into. That alone would be enough to halt sales growth.

Better computers

At the same time, PCs improved to the point where regular upgrades were no longer necessary. PCs were better made, the parts lasted longer between failures.

Another aspect of the changes was the shift from desktop software to cloud apps meant much of the heavy lifting was now done elsewhere.

This meant people could hold on to existing hardware for longer. In some cases far longer. In the 1990s PC makers wanted us to think computers needed upgrading every two years. In reality most of us could hang on for a little longer. By 2007, we could hang on for a lot longer.

Better software

After years of needing constant hardware upgrades, Microsoft’s operating system upgrades stopped being so power-hungry. Windows 7 was less demanding than the forgotten, unloved Windows Vista.

It was much the same with apps. The age of bloatware came to an end.

This happened years earlier in the non-Microsoft world. That’s another story.

Change

Those changes, and in some cases lack of change, were real enough. Until the late 1990s, PC hardware and software leapfrogged each other in, depending on your point of view a vicious or virtuous circle.

So yes, PC sales would have slowed or dropped without Apple’s iPhone launch.

Lane says “Apple may have been a factor”. When overlaid on top of the other, broad sweep of history change, Apple’s influence was profound.

The iPhone kicked the PC market when it was already down. It turned up at the party at precisely the moment when users were casting around for an alternative.

There’s no question smart phone sales, or for that matter tablet sales, displaced PC sales. The iPhone accelerated a trend that had already started.

Cause and effect

Lane’s second point: “I’m not convinced that smart mobile devices only came about because of Apple”.

Again, this is correct. Smart mobile devices were around before the iPhone. We called them Blackberries. They were strictly business class devices. You either needed corporate services or had to pay a king’s ransom extra for the push mail service.

Apple’s iPhone democratised smart mobile devices. This may seem a strange thing to say when most people see Apple as an expensive, premium brand. Yet compared with Blackberry, the iPhone was much cheaper to own and run.

Breakthrough

Could anyone else have made the smart phone breakthrough?

Many tried. There were plenty of other candidates at the time. Nokia lead phone sales. Motorola was a strong challenger. Palm had the Pilot, there was a phone derivative. HP and others made Windows Phones.

Here’s the problem. Large corporations with the talent, resources, infrastructure and capital needed to develop great products are often unwilling to take the necessary risks. In many cases potential breakthrough products sit moldering in the skunkworks while the corporate sails blithely on.

Microsoft couldn’t

It’s unlikely Microsoft could have made an iPhone breakthrough. But even if it did, the management at the time would never have unleashed a product that might disrupt the company’s monopolistic grip on personal computing.

Windows Phone 8 was a nice phone OS, but it was too late. Remember, at the time the iPhone appeared Microsoft was the world’s biggest, richest, company. It took Microsoft years to realise its core business was undermined by the iPhone.

Samsung’s pre-Android phones were pitiful. So were Motorola’s first attempts as smartphones. Nokia didn’t get it at all.

Apple ready

What Apple did was pull everything together in a single, elegant, approachable product. You didn’t need to read a book to know how to use it. No-one else had all the parts ready to go at the time.

Apple had the sense to parlay its experience making computers and iPods into a great phone. It wasn’t perfect, but at the time it was as near as possible.

Most important of all. Apple had nothing to lose and everything to gain from the iPhone.

Android

Android was a blatant copy of the iPhone. The original development team may have had embryonic phone software in the works, but when the iPhone arrived, it scrapped plan A.

No-one else had the scale, the infrastructure, the expertise or the pile of cash earned from selling iPods. No-one else had the motive to disrupt the phone market.

If you like, Apple also had the ecosystem — although that’s a much-abused jargon term that can mean whatever a marketing person wants it to mean. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole here.

Not just Apple

So while it’s true we would now be using some form of smart mobile devices even if Apple stuck to making Macs and iPods, the change happen when it did because the company went out on a limb. That’s the broad sweep of history again.

Yet Apple managed to democratise the business, dress it up in a format ordinary non-geek consumers could understand and relate to. In doing so. It made more money than any other company in history.


  1. Let’s leave the secret and un-celebrated triumph of Open Source for another time.  ↩

8 thoughts on “Apple’s role in the PC’s downfall

  1. I agree with much of what you say, Bill. I just want to clarify my main thesis: you can’t create a populist revolution exclusively around an elitist product. The desktop was initiated by Apple’s Mac platform, but only really came to pass because of Microsoft’s cheap and nasty but good enough Windows platform. The key thing was this: MS’ Windows democratised the hardware because a bazaar relative to Apple’s tightly controlled ecosystem in which Apple controlled both the OS and the hardware platform. MS, however, completely missed the second revolution to which, undoubtedly, Apple’s iPod and iPhones were the catalyst: the mobile platform. In this case, Android (built on open source technologies, but itself not entirely open source) democratised mobile hardware, and allowed other OEMs to get involved (and MS tardily got into the act as a patent troll, but that’s another story entirely) as Windows had done at the dawn of the real desktop era. Ultimately, it’s these lightning rod products and (crucially) the more open alternative ecosystem that they spur on, which results in wholesale technological disruption. Without the latter the former won’t do anything but profit substantially – they won’t change the game. That takes a distributed effort, and the filling of many many more (often less profitable, but nonetheless vital) niches.

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  2. Regarding Blackberry being the most expensive smartphone around iPhone’s release:

    At the time the first official iPhone hit NZ (the 3GS), the Windows Mobile handsets we had available as a replacement to the Palm Treo 850 – had an RRP of $1800 (Sony Xperia X1). By comparison, the 3GS was just over $1K – some $800 cheaper and actually worked for months at a time without needing a reboot.

    Windows Mobile handsets were lucky to go a few hours between needing a restart to continue functioning.

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  3. The desktop, like the landline, was out of favour as soon as tolerable mobile computing arose to complement adequate mobile telephony. Apple did it first and arguably still best if not cheapest, but anyone that did it better than the earlier failures (including Apple’s own Newton) was going to take the focus off the desktop.

    There are more hands than desks, so handsets would always be expected to outsell desktops. The pioneering had been done and the value established. Luggables to laptops and netbooks were moves in the right direction, but when it all came together in your hand, you didn’t have to share, earlier mobile and desktop UI/UX lessons learned, and improved comms and computing performance meant the truly personal computer had arrived and it could be expected to dominate all the compute-only mobile solutions.

    Anybody could have done it, but incumbents with satisfying, even excellent, results are not disruptors and it was left to Apple to take the risk and the reward.

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