Think the Same: Apple as IBM, Android as Apple

by Bob Schwartz


Think Different.

That was the theme of Apple’s award-winning and successful ad campaign that ran from 1997 to 2002. Among other creative inspirations, the concept played off of the even more famous one-word IBM slogan “Think”, which had been in use since the 1920’s, when it was devised by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr.

To make the point, Apple created a series of commercials and posters featuring those who had thought differently, including Albert Einstein.

The ad copy included this:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

Keep this in mind as thousands line up—camp out in tents on the street—to be one of the first to own an iPhone 5. Even many self-aware tech pundits have had to admit it: in the current state-of-the-art, the iPhone 5 is not all that cutting edge. But even knowing that, they too are craving it. Resistance is futile.

Apple began as the “other” personal computer. The IBM/Microsoft-based paradigm relentlessly rolled on and over the market. The hardware technology was almost universally licensed and adopted as a standard. Microsoft dominated the operating system, and software was developed for it. PCs were available at every price point and capability, and the market exploded.

Apple thought differently. From the beginning, and with only one brief foray into third-party licensing, Apple decided it would control everything. Quality and style could not be left to the vagaries of the market and to the poor judgment and penny-pinching ways of third party vendors. The result in personal computing was that while Apple won only a minority share of market, its products were not only different but (in the view of some) better, and adopted by creative and thought leaders.

The turning point came when Apple went mobile with the iPod. There had been portable music players for years, beginning with Sony’s revolutionary Walkman. By applying its computing model to this device, Apple did something just as revolutionary. Unlike having a minority position in computing, Apple took the lead in digital music players and never looked back. It not only owned the device, it owned the store for feeding the device. Apple was no longer the other; Apple was it.

Apple took the same tack as it always had when it entered the mobile phone market: superior technology plus superior style. And as with its earliest computers, it maintained complete ownership and control. This was more than just a matter of not sharing the rewards with third-parties. As a consumer, you could be sure that any application would run flawlessly with the Apple OS on an Apple device.

The iPhone is now a standard, one embraced by millions with a fanaticism that approaches a cult. Henry Ford’s famous message to car buyers of the original Model T was that you could have any color, as long as it was black. Steve Jobs may have never quoted this, but this is the experience of the iPhone buyer. And they are ecstatic at the lack of choice.

The iPhone is a standard, but not the standard. The other force in mobile phones is Android.

The metaphorical differences between Apple and Android are infinite. If Apple makes the trains run on time, Android has powerful trains still looking for the conductor, the schedules and even the track. If Apple is a tightly produced Broadway show, Android is a three-ring circus with the ringmaster on acid. If Apple is Singapore, Android is the Wild West.

And yet, Android is the dominant mobile platform in the world, and its lead over Apple is widening.

The Android system—if you can call it that—works like this. The operating system is developed and upgrades. Each version goes out to device makers, who adopt it to their own needs, including overlaying it with proprietary additions, and test its integrity and compatibility. These devices are then sent to carriers and service providers who add their own proprietary touches and do further testing. It is a lengthy process that is fraught with missteps, and explains why new versions and upgrades can take months to reach consumers.

Then there are the applications and developers. Quality and qualified developers face the challenge of making sure that their applications work properly on all permutations of Android versions and device-specific overlays. Developing for Apple iOS, on the other hand, is as simple as developing for Apple iOS: if it works, it will work for everyone. And anyone can and does develop for Android. With the exception of malicious apps kept out of the Android market, anything goes. There are thousands of Android apps that are dysfunctional, sometimes comically so.

For some of us who appreciate the excellent and forward-thinking devices in the Android world, even the weirdos and app pranksters are part of the charm. Yes, it can take far too long to get Android upgrades, and even then things may not work perfectly. But most of the time, the results are spectacular. If that is the price to pay for not enlisting in the Apple Army, we’ll pay it.

In the final analysis, that is the irony. Apple has become the world’s leading tech company the way IBM did in the 1950s and 1960s: by telling the world how computing should be done and making them accept it. IBM salesmen—in fact everyone in the company—was required to wear a uniform white shirt and tie. One of the legendary mantras of that period was recited by corporate purchasing agents: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Android is an adventure. It might say of itself, as one corporate iconoclast used to:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

Apple is now IBM. Android is now Apple. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.

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