Like a never-ending plotline, Microsoft and Apple have stolen ideas from one another, writting software for one another, and even invested in one another (a few years ago, Apple was in dire straits and Microsoft invested in them to keep them afloat). It’s like a soap opera that goes on and on.
Many, many years ago, Bill Gates warned Apple that they should let go of the hardware and open it up – the same way IBM did – and focus on software and licensing. Apple never did and it’s fate was mostly stagnant and (and often times nearly fatal) for many years. Nevertheless, they continue to design and sell software and hardware as a single experience.
Flash forward to today and you have the spectacular success of the iPod. Walking around Best Buy during the holiday’s, it wasn’t even a race anymore. The mindshare was all gone. If you really loved your girlfriend or boyfriend, you’d buy them nothing but an iPod. Part of the reason for iPod’s success is iTunes and the elegant way Apple masked the often clumsy interplay between software and hardware into a more frictionless experience. So it turns out there was some silver lining in Apple’s decision after all.
This week at CES, Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft’s play into digital entertainment (both music and movies). It’s called Urge and it’s billed as a competitor to iTunes. Gates talks about the benefits of a seamless experience that spans across devices…except iPods.
Microsoft built it’s empire by allowing hardware to get commoditized (for the most part) and leveraging the value of software. Dell’s & HP’s run Microsoft’s operating system and applications. The interaction (via keyboard and mouse) is nearly identical regardless of hardware. But the iPod/iTunes experience is another species. I can’t help but wonder how Microsoft can fight this battle when you have hundreds of devices designed and built by many manufacturers that all behave and interact differently. I don’t think it’s possible for them to compete with a platform that transcends software and hardware (if it isn’t too late to begin with).
And so, Apple’s nearly fatal decision to continue to market both hardware and software years ago is now their weapon in this battle. I’m sure Gates showed some cool things at CES. And I’m sure he shared the stage with some “partners.” And I think that highlights the core question: can you divvy up the experience among a handful of “chefs in the kitchen.” I don’t think so.