Will history repeat itself?

Once upon a time, Apple developed an amazing OS with a revolutionary graphical interface. They started selling devices which would run this OS. The devices were practically sealed units, and the OS would only run on Apple’s hardware. If you wanted to develop for the devices, you had to pay money to join a developer program.

Some other companies approached Apple and asked if maybe they would license the OS and software to run on third party hardware. Apple considered the matter, and decided that they were so far ahead in user interface and technology that the competition would never catch up. They decided to go it alone, Apple versus the entire rest of the industry.

The year was 1985. The devices were Macintosh computers. The companies who wanted to license MacOS were Philips and Sony. The people who decided that Apple could afford to go it alone against an entire industry were Jean-Louis Gassée and Steve Jobs.

Denied the Mac OS, the rest of the industry settled on MS-DOS, PC-DOS and DR-DOS layered on top of one of a number of competing BIOS programs cloned from IBM’s original PC BIOS. Thus there was basically an open ecosystem of devices from many vendors, running OS variants from multiple vendors, but all able to run the same software, more or less. (I recall that the gold standard at the time was Flight Simulator–if your PC and DOS couldn’t run that, they were considered not-really-compatible.)

Apple continued to innovate throughout the 80s and early 90s, but they couldn’t out-innovate every other company combined. If you wanted a pocket-sized PC, you could get one; but there was never a pocket Mac. If you wanted a PC that was portable or had a color screen, you could get one years before you could get a Mac with those capabilities.

The same was true in software. The larger install base of PCs, and the cheaper and easier development process, meant that lots of weird niche programs appeared for the PC that didn’t appear for the Mac. That’s why even today, with the resurgence of OS X, it’s still hard to do CAD, circuit board design, 3D rendering or HAM radio stuff on a Mac. Some solutions exist, but few compared to on Windows.

Ah yes, Windows. Sure, Apple’s UI was years ahead to start with, but over time the rest of the computing world caught up. Windows is still not quite as slick as the Mac, but it’s good enough–the UI alone is no longer a compelling reason to get a Mac.

My feeling is that Apple is repeating the exact same mistake all over again with the iPhone, and then some. At least the Mac was an open platform.

The iPhone didn’t do anything that other phones couldn’t already do; what it had going for it was an incredibly slick UI. But Apple has locked down the iPhone and made it painful to develop for, with mandatory code signing and a bureaucratic approval process. They’ve prohibited entire classes of innovative application, and have a single hardware form factor. Want an iPhone with a replaceable battery, a flip-open form factor, or a hardware keyboard? Hard luck. Want to run Google Voice, a file server or the cult game DopeWars on your iPhone? Apple says no.

Android phones are now reaching iPhone-like levels of slickness. Android phones are being released by HTC, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony Ericsson, Kyocera, and others. There are also non-phone devices running Android, such as the Archos tablet. Every major US cell phone network has Android devices on the way. The dev kit is free, and runs on every major platform. There are also a lot more Java developers around than there are Objective-C programmers.

So once again, I foresee Apple becoming a niche player. It might not get as bad as the days when the Mac had a single-digit percentage of the market, but I don’t see how they’re going to beat 15-20% with closed, locked-down hardware from a single vendor, when they couldn’t even beat MS-DOS with an open Macintosh OS.

Apple haven’t even beaten BlackBerry yet, in spite of the BlackBerry OS’s glaring defects–perhaps because of Apple’s refusal to ship a phone with a keyboard, an ironic move given that Steve Jobs famously ridiculed the Apple Newton by saying “Apple makes computers, computers have keyboards”. In some social circles it may seem like everyone has an iPhone, but the reality is somewhat different.

I’ve been thinking these thoughts for a while, but recently Gartner agreed with me, predicting that Android will come to dominate the iPhone and BlackBerry, because of its openness. Apple isn’t doomed; they can continue to turn a healthy profit with a small slice of the market, as they’ve proved with the Mac. But the iPhone’s days as the hot device where the innovation happens are numbered. Right now it has a lot of software–but then so did the Mac at first, but that changed by the 90s when Mac market share dropped to 5%.

I’m a Mac user. I like the iPhone UI. If they sold the phone completely unlocked, I’d probably have one now, in spite of the lack of keyboard. But instead, I’m looking ahead and predicting that my next phone will run Android. In particular, the Verizon Droid looks interesting. Time to experiment with the dev kit…