End of the PC era? Don’t make me laugh.

Dirty tricks: the APC team has been wrestling hard over this issue of whether the era of the PC is over.

Well. There has been some spirited debate on this site over the last couple of days with Danny’s opinion piece arguing the era of innovation in the PC is over followed closely by Peter’s rebuttal. Everyone seems to be having so much fun in the mud pit that I thought I might jump in too.

The whole Windows vs Mac vs Microsoft vs Apple argument has been gone into so many times before. And yet like the argument whether the Earth was created 6000 years ago or 4.5 billion years ago here we are again.

At the outset I want to make two statements. Firstly I feel that Danny’s piece (while eloquently written and argued) openly ignores a swathe of facts makes incredibly broad generalisations and drawing the loftiest conclusions from the flimsiest evidence.

Secondly Peter allowed himself to get drawn into those same sweeping conclusions and unjustifiably conceded far too much ground to Danny.

Danny lost me at hello so to speak with his opening statement about “… Microsoft continues to struggle on all fronts except Windows and Office.â€

Let’s be clear – if you want to assess how a company is performing compared to another one you can’t start out by excluding its two main consumer products.

Windows is the repeat the dominant desktop operating system on the planet. And not just by a small margin either. And Office is the dominant desktop productivity suite out there.

What iPods are to MP3s PCs are to computing and Office is to business.

Innovation

To be fair Danny’s article wasn’t suggesting that the PC is dead but rather that the era of innovation in the PC is over — and that most innovation is happening elsewhere.

However to look at the iPhone and declare that Microsoft has lost is on a par with noticing that the sky appears to meet the horizon and therefore the Earth is flat.

One person’s “innovation” is another person’s criticism. Try and apply the label “innovative†to a product in a way which would meet with uniform agreement with anyone you met. It’s impossible.

Personally I’ve never bought an Apple product because I think they look like pretentious pieces of plastic and that for every Apple product out there someone else has produced a product which functions the same if not better and looks a damn sight slicker too.

At least 6% of the global PC market doesn’t agree with me but I’m not losing any sleep over that.

If we have to talk about the iPhone I would argue that a unit which you have to send off to get the battery changed isn’t exactly pushing back the boundaries of innovation. Although getting people to pay good money for it is a triumph of marketing.

But now we get to what I think is Danny’s main point – which is that because Microsoft is so strongly tied to Windows and Office products and has seemingly failed to innovate in these areas compared with what it managed in the past that it has now missed the boat when it comes to general innovation in the IT industry and that it can only follow where others lead.

The truth of that statement is simply a matter of perception. For it to be true you would have to assume that neither Windows Vista nor Office 2007 are innovative products and you’d be dead wrong. In fact I’ve written quite a few pieces for APC on how Office 2007 is so radically different that companies are facing considerable retraining costs before the benefits start flowing in. Yes the new UI for Office is a great improvement over the cluttered mess that is in previous versions of Office but then everybody has learned the old interface of Office — this round of innovation by Microsoft actually makes it quite difficult for an organisation to adopt.

Perhaps the reason Vista and Office 2007 are not perceived as “innovative” for home users is that the areas (under the hood) where Microsoft has truly innovated are simply not that exciting. What home users see is a flashy new semi-transparent user interface – ho hum.
A new “ribbon†in Office instead of drop-down menus? Yawn.

But look at it from a different perspective for a moment. Modular OS structure high levels of stability and granular security policies which no other OS offers? Now you’re talking. 1000 copies across 10 sites please. You can’t manage an OS X machine remotely over a network — there are vendors that offer some level of manageability for Mac but it’s all expensive third-party stuff that Microsoft includes for free.

Microsoft vs Apple

The fact is that when you compare Microsoft and Apple you’re not comparing like with like.

Being a company fortunate enough to have a popular product implies a level of responsibility to past present and future customers. The more popular the product the greater the responsibility. Microsoft has a responsibility to over 90% of home desktop users and even more than that in business markets. Apple doesn’t. Apple can afford to push boundaries which may or may not pay off for them because quite frankly who cares? If they get it wrong who’s it really going to affect? They have that luxury and more power to them. They’re doing a good job and I hope they keep it up.

In comparison Microsoft’s decisions have implications on a global scale and its innovations have to be in accordance with that reality.

That’s not to say that Microsoft innovation is crippled by compromise lethargy or inertia but rather that it innovates in areas where it really really matters rather than what’s simply going to be a popular money-spinner.

Yes they throw money into plenty of other areas too – Zune Xbox/Xbox360 gaming hardware. Some of it’s good and some not so good but just because you might think that Microsoft doesn’t do as good a job at search engines as Google develop better MP3 players than Apple or gaming consoles than Sony why should Microsoft keep out of those markets altogether? And why is it indicative of their imminent decline?

That’s a type of brand-loyal elitist blinkered arrogance which seems to be increasingly accepted but is actually quite nauseating.

When you watch Steve Jobs and Bill Gates speaking together you’re not looking at men whose respective companies are slugging it out in the same weight division. If Jobs says that “…the era of the PC is largely over†whose interests do you think he’s serving by making that statement? Yours? The IT industry’s? Don’t be naive.

We’re in the post-PC era? Not a chance.

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