Apple picks a fight it can't win

Safari on Windows will fail, argues Mike Elgan

Apple rarely competes directly -- with anyone.

Instead of slugging it out with other hardware and software companies on a level playing field, Apple historically creates its own playing field from scratch, then dominates it utterly.

While nearly the whole industry participated in what used to be called the "IBM-compatible" market, with clone hardware running DOS, OS/2, Windows and, later, Linux, Apple refused to play. Instead, the company always built its own computers that ran its own operating system.

Those funny "PC vs. Mac" ads create the false impression of direct, one-on-one, mano-a-mano competition between PCs and Macs, but it's a marketing sleight of hand. While a Mac is a unified, tightly controlled hardware-and-software product from Apple, a PC contains an unpredictable mixture of hardware components integrated by any number of companies, lorded over (usually) by a Microsoft operating system.

If PCs were made by Microsoft, and Microsoft didn't allow anyone else to make PCs, then you could make an apples-to-apples comparison, as it were, between PCs vs. Macs. But they're not, so you can't.

While Dell competes directly with Hewlett Packard and hundreds of other companies in the PC space, Apple does not compete directly with anyone in the Mac market.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a bad thing. There are advantages and disadvantages to Apple's approach, and the success of Apple brings welcome choice to the market.

Likewise with the iPod. The portable media player market is the House That Apple Built. The company owns the iTunes platform and largely controls digital music distribution. Steve Jobs is the most powerful man in Hollywood, and he doesn't even live there. Apple doesn't compete directly with anyone in the media player market because, like the Macintosh market, Apple created the media file management platform (iTunes), the content marketplace (digital file distribution through iTunes) and standards, and doesn't let anyone else play.

With the iPhone, Apple is once again refusing to compete directly in the cell phone market. While some handset makers compete directly with each other in the Windows Mobile, Symbian and other "open" platform markets, companies like Research In Motion, Palm and, soon, Apple all play in their own respective, self-created sandboxes. Controlling your own platform has proved for RIM and Palm to be the way to go, and will also be successful for Apple.

Apple is once again creating its own category -- call it the Mac OS-based cell phone category -- and I'm sure Apple will win 100% market share.

I can think of only one example in which Apple competes directly with other companies on a level, open playing field: the software media player market.

Apple's Windows version of QuickTime competes directly with Microsoft's bundled Windows Media Player, RealNetworks' RealPlayer and others. Although QuickTime holds its own, Apple doesn't dominate market share. But from a quality and usability standpoint, QuickTime is by far the superior player, in my opinion. For video quality, sound quality and ease of use, QuickTime rules in every element of the user experience.

So why do I have such a bad feeling about Safari for Windows?

By announcing a Windows version of Apple's Safari browser, Jobs uncharacteristically entered a mature market not created or controlled by Apple.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld
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