It was nearly ten years ago that the Great Desktop Wars ended. Apple’s people and Microsoft’s people got themselves a conference room at a moderately placed hotel in Eugene, Oregon. They ordered in a few pizzas, and then they hammered out the key terms of the armistice:
Apple apologized for being so thoughtless and petty as to have taken more than 10 per cent of the global desktop market, and promised to never ever do it again. In return, Microsoft agreed to forget all about things like power, innovation and simplicity, committing to this mandate so completely that those three words were permanently struck from Microsoft Office’s spelling dictionaries. And both companies have stuck to this truce ever since. Apple, in fact, has gone above and beyond, keeping the Mac OS’s worldwide penetration down to a far more reasonable 4 per cent. Microsoft only slipped up once, when it released a 2003 update to its networking wizard. Previously, installing a WiFi card inspired the user to commit the sort of highly baroque, soul-cleansing act that becomes the basis of a controversial made-for-TV movie 14 months later. With the new version, you’re left with such a spring in your step and such a positive outlook by Windows standards that you solely wish to take your own life.
Overall, a successful truce. But any observer of history will tell you that wars never truly end – they just change venue. And today, the same anger, desperation, passion, prejudice and cunning that fueled the Desktop Wars is now being fought between your ears. Apple and Microsoft are at it again – and this time, it’s all about the music.
Apple sent me its new iPod at roughly the same time that Microsoft sent me a Portable Media Center. It’s tempting to refer to the PMC as an “iPod with video.” Like an iPod, it has a rechargeable battery and a 20GB hard drive, and when you dock it to a PC, content is automatically transferred onto it. But it also has a large colour screen and can slurp up and play last night’s Letterman show as easily as a U2 album, provided that you have a TV tuner card in your computer.
As a device for watching pre-recorded TV shows on your morning train, it trounces the iPod, whose video features require an inconvenient amount of imagination on the part of the user. In every other possible category... not so much. The PMC is as big as a paperback romance novel. Navigating from Abba to Zeppelin is an adventure that gives you some idea of what it was like to cross the Atlantic in the days before John Harrison solved the problem of longitude. The guy who designed the PMC’s button layout seems to think that by 2005, all of the truly trendy and fashionable people will have additional thumbs surgically grafted in. And you can’t easily prop the device up into a comfortable viewing angle, forcing you to eat your lunch one-handed while you watch.
Mind you, when you settle into a seat on a train for a fourhour ride and you see your fellow passengers unfold their primitive “newspapers” and open their so-called “magazines”, the knowledge that you have more than 12 hours of video in your pocket fills you with a cozy, smug feeling, as well as the paternal urge to swat these losers in the heads with their own reading material. But a PMC has all the power, charm, and slick sophistication of a Soviet-made television set. So, Microsoft’s iPod-killer is a wash. Surely it did better with its edition of the iTunes Music Store, right? Please. It reminds me of what would happen if Homer Simpson tried to build a sports car in his garage. Microsoft has seen the iTunes Store whizzing by and it sort of knows what it needs to build, but the whole thing is bodged together with scrap lumber and there are bent nails and screws sticking up everywhere. You know better than to buy a hot dog from a street vendor with open sores on his hands, and similar human instincts will scare consumers away from MSN Music, I think.
So: Apple owns the digital music player market... in all categories, and by an insurmountable margin. Apple also owns the market for online music purchases... again, in all categories, and again by an insurmountable margin. We should be happy, right?
As Mac users, Apple’s hardware and software have given us so many great reasons to pat ourselves on the back that by now, we can swat mosquitoes off our shoulder blades with the same casual ease of a cow flicking its tail. But we shouldn’t get too comfortable with Apple’s dominance of the music biz. Microsoft can give PC users something that Apple refuses to even contemplate: choice. Microsoft doesn’t want to own the hardware. It wants to own the standard. So it’s licensed its music download format to anyone who wants to open a storefront, and to any manufacturer who wants to build a player. So what if Microsoft’s store and player stink? Who cares? Here are another twelve to choose from!
In the field of music, Apple has admirably fulfilled the role of Benevolent Dictator, both to Mac and PC users. You’re locked into its proprietary FairPlay music rights-management system, which means that the iPod and the iTunes store are permanently wedlocked. But surely there’s no need to start licensing FairPlay. I mean, who cares about choice, when The Only Store and The Only Player are both the best in the biz?
Well, you forget why Microsoft usually wins. Most assume it’s because it has fantastic businesspeople. That’s close, but it’s not really true of the modern Microsoft. No, it wins at nearly everything because it’s committed to a model of evolution, not revolution. The PMC isn’t a serious challenge to the iPod, but really... was Windows 3.0 (the first release that didn’t ship with the subscript “Just kidding”)? Apple aims carefully before squeezing the trigger. Microsoft just shoots. Then, it looks up, and when it sees that it’s wide of the target, makes an adjustment, and fires again. Repeat.
It’s noisy and messy, yes, but ultimately Microsoft always hits. It aimed for the desktop and got it. It aimed for PDAs, and after years of routinely miserable hardware the PocketPC (now called Windows Mobile) commands a huge percentage of the palmtop market – and it’s only gaining more ground. The company released a Tablet PC a couple of years ago, to poor sales. But has it taken it off the market? Nope.
The more money Apple makes from digital music, the more alluring the target of digital music becomes. Yet Apple’s never so much as hinted at opening up FairPlay for competing players. “We shall prevail,” you might think. You should take out your earplugs. After all, that’s what the dictator in the “1984” commercial confidently said... and look where it got him.