Apple, Google and Microsoft are locked in a three-way struggle for industry dominance, competing to varying degrees on hardware, computer and cell phone operating systems, applications, entertainment, Internet search and more.
Today, Google owns Internet search, Microsoft owns operating systems and applications, and Apple owns high-end hardware and entertainment and media devices. That may well change, though. So it's worthwhile to ask: As each company looks to encroach on the turf of the others, which one is best positioned for the future -- and which is most likely to fall?
Although Apple is riding high now, it's the most vulnerable of the three. That's because its success is built on the singular vision and talent of one person -- Steve Jobs.
In plenty of companies, if someone else took the place of an existing CEO, the company would do just about as well. That's not the case with Apple and Jobs, though -- for all intents and purposes, he is Apple. Before he returned to Apple in 1996, the company was floundering. He killed money-losing projects like the Newton; oversaw the creation of a host of innovative products, including Mac OS X, the iPod, the iPhone and the iMac; and rejuvenated the company. Harvard Business Review last year named him the most valuable CEO in the world, because under his leadership, Apple's market value increased by approximately $150 billion, delivering a 3,188% industry-adjusted return.
That's both the good news and the bad news for Apple. As long as Jobs is on the job, great. But he won't be CEO forever, and there's no heir apparent who can match his vision. My guess is that after he leaves, Apple will experience a long, slow decline.
Apple, far more than Microsoft or Google, has a business model somewhat akin to that of a Hollywood studio: It requires blockbuster hits in order to bring in big profits. When Jobs leaves, those hits will stop coming.
Of the three companies, Google is best positioned to thrive in the future. It has a near monopoly on Internet search, the core of the world economy's greatest growth engine. That gives it both an excellent base to expand upon, as well as a massive war chest it can depend on to fund new ventures. Although at times Google takes a scattershot approach to product development, it has heavily targeted high-growth areas as well, notably mobile devices. Because of that, it is well positioned to take advantage of the mobile device advertising boom that is likely to develop in the coming years. And although Google isn't likely to compete seriously against Microsoft in the operating systems and applications markets, it will gain enough revenue from its offerings to make it a player in those businesses.
Finally, there's Microsoft, which falls somewhere between Apple and Google. Unlike Apple, it doesn't need big hits in order to grow. With a stranglehold on operating systems and productivity applications, and with solid enterprise tools, it will grow steadily. Google won't be able to break its near monopoly.
The success of Windows 7 shows that the release of a new operating system still brings in plenty of revenue. Recently, Microsoft had a blowout quarter, increasing revenue by 14% over the year-earlier period, thanks to skyrocketing Windows 7 sales. And although Microsoft won't unseat Google as the Internet search leader, Bing shows that it can make plenty of money in that business.
So looking ahead, expect Google to thrive, Microsoft to stay the course, and Apple eventually to lose its Jobs-driven magic.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).