Last week, we questioned if those who were out to criticize Apple were judging the company by an old standard
, namely the standard set by Steve Jobs. The company is no longer run by Steve, so while the products of the company will likely still be the same sort of closed, integrated systems that we've come to expect, the company itself may not be as much of a patent lawsuit bully with Tim Cook in charge. However, even if Apple does change its ways, which we still don't have enough proof that has happened, or will continue. The comments on the article led us to see that people have a strange misconception about Apple and the role it plays in shaping the future of technology.
The trouble seems to be due to the growing metonymy that Apple's brand is creating in the mobile market. By that, we mean that those who don't understand the new smartphone market use "iPhone" as a stand-in word for all smartphones, and all platforms have to be compared primarily to the iPhone. Similarly, "iPad" is slowly becoming metonymous with all tablets. This is all much like how "Kleenex" can become a catch-all term for tissues. When you combine that metonymy with the ridiculous profit and marketing power of Apple, it can seem quite scary, but the extent to which people seem to think this will lead to Apple influencing other companies to create "Apple-like" products. Even to the point that some think that Apple's market power will end up killing "full function mobile devices and PCs".
This is the sort of doomsaying that we just can't let go, because the arguments can sound reasonable and may sway people, even though they are incredibly unlikely. Let's walk through this and see if we can't hash it out.
The use of the word "iPhone" to mean all smartphones, is one that luckily is slowly decreasing as Apple's competitors continue to gain market share and awareness. Of course, Android faces a similar metonymy problem, where Verizon's brand "DROID" is becoming a catch-all term for Android devices. And, while iPad was the only tablet worth talking about for a while there, luckily the term "iPad" still hasn't gained as much traction in meaning all tablets, but the same phenomenon is there as well. This creates a distortion of reality. Because people use the Apple brand words in this way, it gives the impression that the iPhone and iPad are the de facto choice of consumers when it comes to mobile devices, but this isn't really true.
Well, it's not 100% true. The iPad is something of a de facto choice for a tablet, because unless you are deep into the Android ecosystem, or have specific needs why you need to see the file system of your device, the iPad offers a better experience than any other tablet out there. Android tablets are coming on strong, but unlike Android phones, they can't offer full app parity just yet (which we blame more on app developers rather than Google), and the Android tablets that undercut the iPad considerably on price offer a far worse user experience (because they often run Gingerbread and not Google's true tablet versions of Android), and so do not make the savings worth it. That could possibly change with the introduction of the Nexus tablet, but right now Apple is still the clear leader in the tablet space.
However, just because people say "I want an iPhone" to say that they want a smartphone should not be confused with the iPhone being the de facto choice. The sales figures alone disprove that idea. Yes, Apple has huge sales figures across the board, but Android has steadily been taking more and more of the overall smartphone market share, especially with first time smartphone buyers
. This makes it seem like what is happening is that people will walk into a store saying "I want an iPhone", because they don't really know what the market holds. But, once they see what is in the market and learn what each platform offers, more often than not, consumers have been choosing Android, not iOS.
Beyond this metonymy, which has a tendency to disappear once a consumer has a bit more knowledge under their belt, is the idea that because Apple is so successful in the market, smaller companies will try to copy Apple's approach and this will ultimately create a market with nothing but Apple and Apple clones. This topic is a bit more nuanced, because that will happen in a way, but not for the reasons laid out.
As far as we can see, there is no merit to the idea that Apple's power and influence in the market is going to kill off so-called "full-featured devices" in favor of Apple's approach of a tightly controlled walled-garden ecosystem. Once again, this idea can easily be dismissed with the same reasoning that we laid out above. Apple's power and influence in the market was never higher than a few years ago, but rather than clones of Apple's approach, we saw the rise of the polar opposite to Apple's iOS in Android. Apple's iPhone was a cultural and consumer phenomenon, but it's tightly controlled ecosystem didn't lead to copycats, but a platform fighting back with a culture of openness, choice and customization.
There were some copycats trying to replicate Apple's design philosophies, but we don't see any problems there. Apple has always put in more effort than most to create intuitive software design combined with quality hardware design, so if there is anything that companies should look to emulate it would be Apple's design philosophies. However, this is also the type of copying which is least detrimental to the overall choice in the market. The Nokia Lumia 800 has a very Apple-esque design with its unibody design, which is very striking, but beyond that it is still a Windows Phone device, which has only a little in common with iOS. The same goes with the Sony Xperia P, which also features a design that seems to take cues from Apple, but is still an Android device with all of the customization and access that entails.
Apple still makes huge profits, and has an incredibly loyal (and vocal) user base, but Apple is not the dominant force in the market. Apple's days of huge power and influence are no longer at its peak, and since then we've seen nothing but an increase in diversity of choice rather than more Apple clones. What we have seen is less a result of companies copying Apple, but rather that Apple sees trends in the market and makes a big move at the same time that other companies are doing the same. But, because it is Apple with the marketing frenzy that follows the company, it is made to seem as though Apple is leading the way, when it may not be.
Apple has been making user-friendly devices for years and years, this is nothing new. However, now that tablets are catching on, suddenly people are worried that "full-featured PCs" are going to die and be replaced with easy-to-use, limited functionality devices. Well, that's almost true. Yes, "full-featured" PCs as we know them are on their way out, and will ultimately become a niche or companion device, but those devices will not be erased from the world, and the functionality that is lacking in mobile devices now will be added in as we get deeper and deeper into the so-called "post-PC era".
Essentially, the role of traditional PCs and mobile devices will be switched, with mobile increasingly becoming the primary device for the majority of users. That's the way of the future, and it's not because of Apple, but because of how people use electronic devices. This trend is also nothing to be scared of, because it is a trend that will not only get more people using computing devices and the web, but because it is a perfectly logical trend. Google realized the same thing that Apple did: computers are overkill. Computers are more powerful and expensive than 95% of users have any use for, and there is no need for a computer to be a relatively localized experience.
As such, Apple created the iPad, which can probably do about 90% of what a traditional PC can do, and that percentage is growing with each new iteration. Google followed a two-pronged approach with both Android, which can probably do about 92% of what a traditional PC can do (the extra 2% above Apple is for the easily accessed file system) and Chrome OS. The idea for Chrome OS was simple, and very similar to the thinking behind tablets: users spend most of their time in a web browser, and more and more the web can replicate 95% of what users may need to do, and the portability is gained by syncing data in the cloud rather than actually carrying a device with you. So, the market began to move away from PCs, because they were simply not needed.
Sure, there will always be people out there with a need for the power to get behind video encoding, hardcore gaming, or more in-depth photo editing/graphical creation, but those people are a very small minority of the market, so why do we need to have our premiere devices made to meet the standards needed for those power users? Quite simply, we don't. We need devices that can do what we need them to do, whenever and wherever we need. This lead to a failed attempt with netbooks, which were mobile enough, but not powerful enough, and the rise of mobile devices. It also led to the rise in ultrabooks, because mobility is important and there are still those out there that need traditional PCs.
PCs are not going to disappear, but are simply changing form, and are losing the status as our primary computing devices. They are not being replaced by closed-in Apple devices, but with a combination of closed Apple devices, semi-open Android devices, and soon Windows devices, which promise to not just give a new way to do everything we have always done on PCs, but to truly translate the PC world to mobile devices. Sure, at first Windows tablets will be expensive, but the cost will no doubt come down, and lead to quite a solid amount of choice in the mobile market.
And, that's the whole point. Apple being successful, and people appreciating and supporting Apple devices has never led to a reduction of choice in the market, nor has it led to devices becoming more closed and limited to emulate Apple devices. Rather, we've seen a number of competitors spring up with a wide range of styles, and the only thing we can say about companies following Apple's lead is in the number of content stores we've seen coming together from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, and in some design choices from various manufacturers, because once the platform capabilities are on par, the biggest advantage that Apple has/had is iTunes.
Apple makes huge profits, and has the most powerful marketing machine in the world because of its extremely loyal fans supplementing the company's official marketing campaigns. Apple may even get extra coverage in mainstream media because its products tend to become cultural touchstones with common viewers because of their ease and simplicity. This connection to common users has led to the metonymy with Apple branded products. But, none of that has caused a shift in the market towards more Apple-like products, because companies like Google and Microsoft have pretty dedicated followers as well, and their followers don't want the simplicity and limits of Apple devices. So, those companies, and their hardware partners make devices for that section of the market. All users coexist, and with luck, all enjoy the devices they have chosen. Those that choose Apple, do so because it fits their needs and desires, but that support doesn't endanger the choice of those who want a Google or Microsoft device. It's just a personal choice.