The philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” seems to underlie many of the stories bubbling up around the leap from fixed computing to mobile computing. Especially with regard to Apple’s role in forming the ecosystem, the market and some of the decisions they’ve taken about what to leave behind. Santayana’s aphorism has been restated in a number of ways, another popular formulation is: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” At any rate, there’s an implication that history, the past, should never be repeated— doing so is the occupation of the doomed. There’s also a sense of coming upon a node, as we move through time, that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. Although we don’t replay it note for note, the chord changes seem follow the same pattern.
There are two stories that run through the minds of observers:
1. The Apple and Microsoft story. An integrated computing system that pushed the boundaries of human-computer interaction into the realm of usefulness, and the lower-cost modular computing system (DOS paired with any manufacturer) that provided a ‘good enough’ experience and a solid return on investment. In the end, Microsoft’s Windows became the dominant personal and business computing platform.
2. The Monopoly and Anti-Trust story. From its position of market dominance, Microsoft used its position to maintain power. The law is fine with the use of soft power (you choose it because it’s best, whatever best means to you); but steps in when hard power is exercised (you choose it because it’s the only choice). A settlement was reached: Microsoft’s brand suffered damage, some APIs were opened up and market dominance was largely maintained. The second act of this story has developers starting to route around Microsoft by creating cloud-based applications of ever-increasing sophistication.
And so, as the mobile computing space comes into focus we see:
1. Apple and iPhone/iPad Touch/iPad as an integrated platform and device
2. Google and Android/Chrome across multiple manufacturers
3. Microsoft and Silverlight/Windows Phone across multiple manufacturers
Tech pundits expect an exact replay of The Apple and Microsoft story. Although, Google has been cast in the role of Microsoft this time. Steve Jobs, they say, has not learned from history. Apple will eventually be overtaken by a more “open” and commodified horizontal platform. On the other hand, both Google and Microsoft have learned from Apple and have bought in to integrated design practices while maintaining a multiple-manufacturer production model. And while Apple is thought to be repeating its mistakes on the one hand, on the other, they’ve been cast in the role of Microsoft based on their dominance and control of the new mobile market. On a recent Gillmor Gang, Blaine Cook suggested that Apple is courting an anti-trust action based on their recent behavior. The implication being that there is no choice but the iPhone/iPad, and that competition is hindered by Apple controlling their own device platform.
Google and Microsoft have understood that more control and tighter design integration will be required to compete with Apple. Google has started down that road with the Nexus One. Microsoft, with their Windows Phone 7 announcements, have shown that they’ll be moving in the same direction. They’re very fast followers, some might even say they’re tailgating Apple. As in any race, drafting into the slipstream of the leader provides many advantages.
The term “slipstreaming” describes an object traveling inside the slipstream of another object (most often objects moving through the air though not necessarily flying). If an object is inside the slipstream behind another object, moving at the same speed, the rear object will require less power to maintain its speed than if it were moving independently. In addition, the leading object will be able to move faster than it could independently because the rear object reduces the effect of the low-pressure region on the leading object.
A fast follower wants to put himself into the position to execute a slingshot pass. By drafting in behind the market leader, the follower can exert less energy while keeping pace. The slingshot allows the follower to generate passing speed by optimizing the aerodynamics of their relative positions. The leader wants to adjust position to block this kind of move. The analysis and play-by-play has been based entirely on the assumption the lessons of history have been locked in, and this new race will play out with exactly the same dynamics. The lesson Apple may have learned is that a post-PC approach and strong portfolio of patents could change the outcome of some key points of the narrative.
A subplot to the main story involves Adobe and its Flash runtime. Adobe’s Flash is playing the role of Netscape in the current transition. Although Hal Varian was referring to Netscape in his 1999 book Information Rules, the thought applies equally well to Adobe. They face a classic problem of interconnection. Their competitors control the operating environment in which they are but one component. Adobe owes its current level of success in the fixed computing environment to Microsoft’s dominance.
At a key point, Microsoft had no competitive product and agreed to distribute the Flash runtime along with its operating system and browser. This put Flash on a high percentage of the installed personal computing user base. This kind of market penetration probably could not have been achieved if users had been required to download and install the plugin on their own. Once the Flash player was in place, apps could be pushed over the wire, and there was a high likelihood that they would operate. The Flash runtime could even update itself once it was established on the local Windows machine. The Macintosh and Linux platforms were filled in by Adobe, but were given a much lower priority based on market share.
Adobe has two problems in this transitional environment. The first is that their competitors control both their operating environment— and the distribution channel. Secondly, where they once had a willing partner, Microsoft now has Silverlight which competes directly. Because Adobe has had a high penetration percentage, they claim as much a 99%, they feel entitled to ship with any new operating environment. It used to be that way, but things have changed. The problem that Adobe’s Flash solved now has other solutions in each of the mobile stacks.
In the post-PC mobile computing world all of the original assumptions and agreements are being reassessed. This new environment isn’t an extension or an evolution of the fixed desktop environment– the blackboard has been erased and the project has been built up from scratch. That means you don’t assume Adobe’s Flash runtime, you don’t even assume copy and paste, multi-tasking or a file system. The first couple of things you might put on the blackboard are 10 hour battery life and always-on wireless network connectivity— that’s what makes the device usable in a mobile context. From there we can add location and streaming services, real-time responsiveness and the rest. But it’s battery life that’s the limiting factor. It’s the invisible tether that eventually draws us back to the power source to recharge. Where silicon once ruled, we now look to lithium.
The assumption that history will repeat itself relieves us of the burden of figuring out what’s going on, of understanding out the differences that make a difference. No doubt some threads of history will repeat themselves, but they may not be the ones we expect. When we come upon a node, as we move through time, a moment that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. We also have the opportunity to take a familiar melody and go off and explore unexpected directions.