There was a time when “laptop” and “ThinkPad” were practically synonymous. Whenever you saw business people or students pull out a computer in a meeting or classroom, it was almost certainly going to be a thick, black chunk of plastic emblazoned with the colorful IBM logo and a trademark red nubbin nestled in the keyboard. Today, though, when you think of a laptop, you probably think of something different. You probably think of a thin, aluminum-clad machine with a chiclet-style keyboard and a glowing Apple on the back. The MacBook is the new ThinkPad, having invaded corporate conference rooms and college classrooms across the nation (not to mention your local Starbucks). There’s a good reason for this: Apple makes damn fine notebooks, while IBM no longer makes them at all. It’s interesting, though, to ponder on how we got to a place where the once-scrappy underdog of computing became the industry default.
It isn’t just traditional computers, either. When shopping for smartphones or tablets or media players or set-top boxes or even wireless routers, Apple’s products are often the benchmark to which other manufacturers’ devices are compared. Even I, as someone who has voiced quite a bit of criticism of both Apple’s products and business practices in the past, start most technology recommendations to friends and family members with the closest Mac or iDevice and work from there. They’re always a solid baseline: Apple products are typically a jack-of-all trades in whatever their target market may be, filling no particular niche but doing most things very well. The Airport Extreme, for example, isn’t the cheapest, smallest, fastest, or most feature-rich 802.11ac wireless router, but it does stay above average in each of those categories without sacrificing in any of the others or becoming a nightmare to set up. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the exact position IBM used to occupy in the computing market.
So how did we get to this strange place? A lot of the blame rests on the inaction of the major PC manufacturers, who spent most of the mid 2000s resting on their collective laurels. You’ve probably heard all manner of horror stories about the technical support and reliability experiences customers have had with Dell and HP machines from that era. Meanwhile, IBM never did recover completely from Microsoft’s embrace of the clone market in the 90s. Eventually they sold their PC business to Chinese OEM Lenovo in the middle of the decade, exiting the consumer market almost completely to focus on their more profitable server and HPC business lines. Meanwhile, Apple seized on this opportunity to position themselves as a manufacturer of quality computing products in a sea of mediocrity. Their first major success in this market was of course the iPod, but over time it would be joined by the iPhone, iPad, and an explosion of popularity in Macs. Customers were sick of products that were (or at least were perceived to be) hard to set up and maintain, while offering flimsy build quality and rarely going anything to stand out from the crowd. Apple gave them polished, finely-crafted hardware that came out of the box with none of the crapware typical of many OEMs, and plenty of features that make for cool, standout demos – Garageband and Photobooth being prime examples. Yes, it was often expensive, but they quickly discovered that customers were willing to pay more for hardware that didn’t feel cheap and software that didn’t confuse and frustrate them. The end result of this focus on experience is clear: today Apple is one of the largest and most profitable companies on Earth and the entrenched standard for many of the markets they compete in, at least in western markets like the US and UK.
This has led to an attitude among many businesses and prospective technology buyers that Apple should be the de facto choice for any new device. If an IT department gets tasked with rolling out a bring-your-own device system, or an initiative to give students or field employees tablets, they’re at least likely to start with Apple products because they’re popular, well-known devices with fairly uniform specifications and capabilities. This is all great for Apple’s marketing and bottom line, at least in the near term. But how does Apple avoid becoming another IBM? Can an up-and-comer in their markets usurp them, as they once usurped big blue? Of course, and the best way to avoid that is to never stop innovating and driving. At least some parts of Apple seem to understand this. The iPad Air 2, as I recently reviewed, certainly pushes the boundaries for what you can accomplish in a 10-inch tablet space, at least from a hardware and form factor perspective. Apple’s chip design teams are, somewhat surprisingly, at the forefront of innovation in the ARM space, beating Qualcomm and even ARM itself to market with an ARMv8 implementation in the consumer space. They have also been focused on pushing the limits of mobile GPU horsepower for several generations, so much so that they appear to have teamed up with Imagination Technologies to deliver a semi-custom build of Series 6XT in the A8X, allowing them to rival even nVidia’s massive Kepler-derived Tegra K1 GPU in performance. But there are the uncomfortable signs of stagnation as well. The iPad Mini 3 rather pointedly adds nothing but a TouchID sensor to the iPad Mini 2 it replaced, and the iPhone still sports a frustratingly low display resolution and memory allotment in the face of increasingly powerful Android-based competition. in terms of functionality, Microsoft are leading the charge for more capable “smart” devices with their excellent new Surface tablet that packs desktop(-ish) productivity into a 10-inch tablet, albeit a thick, expensive, and heavy one. Still, we’re a long way from the total abandonment of quality and design focus that led to the major PC manufacturers capitulating so much of their momentum to Apple, or even from the missteps made by Apple themselves in the 90s. This probably isn’t the Apple Jobs and Wozniak (and their forgotten friend Ronald Wayne, who sold his share of the company back to the other two for…$800) expected it to become from a Los Altos garage back in the 1970s. It’s almost certainly not the Apple Microsoft expected it to become when they bailed out the sinking company in the 90s. And it’s definitely no longer an Apple that wants their potential customers to “Think Different.” When that slogan was coined, it banked on Apple’s scrappy underdog status next to industry giants like IBM. While that’s no longer the case, there is one place that idea of thinking outside the box can’t die: inside Apple. Because if it does, their competitors will seize the chance to Byte into an Apple themselves.