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opinion tech

Back to the Future

We’ve been here before. I wonder if anyone else recognises it?

(Well, I haven’t, though I’ve read about it. Let me explain…)

There’s an eerie sense of deja vu about the computer industry right now, if you look at it the right way.  The PC wars were pretty much over by the time I was born, definitely so by the time I was old enough to be conscious of a computer, but from what I’ve gleaned from my history books and a little recent reading, things weren’t always so straightforward in the computer industry as they’ve been over the last few years.

Once upon a time thirty years ago, there were many computer manufacturers, almost all with significant differences in key technology components of their machines. The chips inside were different, the operating systems weren’t compatible, and if you made a bet on technology occasionally it didn’t pay out – the computer you bought today might be gone tomorrow.

Apple was there, as was Microsoft. That was the genesis of these two giants of the industry, and their approach to the computing world at the time led to their wildly differing fortunes in the 90s. Apple worked as it does now – to control the whole process end-to-end, with the hardware and the software all under the Apple umbrella.

Microsoft on the other hand tied up with a key partner in IBM and picked just the software side of the equation. Someone else would build the hardware, but anywhere Microsoft’s operating system ran its programs could run, too.

Hardware manufacturers were quickly sidelined as Microsoft defined their interaction with the machine. In the end, even IBM was sidelined as “IBM PC-compatible” quickly became the “Wintel” world.

It all looked like a war that was over until the smartphone redefined what a personal computer was.

Today, we’ve got something very much like the 80s playing out again in the tablet and smartphone market – competing, incompatible OSes, different hardware architectures, and a market that is quickly proliferating with options.

Apple’s got a head start like they did last time, and are controlling the end-to-end chain even more strongly than before. They’ve got a major competitor that is selling only the software, not the hardware. Only this time, Google is Microsoft, with Android the biggest challenger amongst the pack.

There are differences, of course. IBM is no longer in the consumer hardware business, and there’s no Big Blue equivalent for either the consumers to go with or Google to work with as a premier hardware partner. Microsoft is still around of course, though not competitive in the segment where the battle is being fought.

And it almost goes without saying, the Internet has changed everything – no longer does your computing platform determine what applications you can use, as increasingly the complex logic is available in a device-agnostic form. No longer is it necessary to be tied to a single platform if what you do is simply accessed through a browser, more than ever a proxy OS environment for the web.

All this is also within the lifespan of the people involved the first time around, and they’re not likely to make the same mistakes twice, especially not Steve Jobs.

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