There Was That Whole Internet Thing, Too

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Anyone wanting to see the whole “history is written by the victors” thing in process should read Tim Wu and John Gruber battle it out over exactly why Apple has kicked the crap out of everyone else since the late 90s.

Wu, who’s confused about what open v. closed systems really mean (he uses a variety of definitions), says that Apple has succeeded despite being a closed system. Gruber says open v. closed doesn’t matter, and says Apple succeeds because it produces great products fast (meaning first to market). Gruber’s argument can be condensed down to “Companies run by geniuses should generally do better than those which are not,” and I agree.

Except.

The Internet.

So When Gruber says “The Wintel duopoly certainly ate the Mac’s lunch in the ’90s, but this coincided with the nadir of the Mac’s qualitative superiority,” he’s right. But it’s more right to say “this coincided with the end of the pre-Internet world.”

Talking about Apple v. Microsoft without mentioning the Internet and the browser is like talking about WWII without talking about the nuke. Framing the conversation just in terms of open v. closed operating systems, the quality of the hardware or software or who the CEO was, is silly.

Because without the Internet happening there’s no way Apple would have succeeded.

Before the Internet all most people cared about was Office. And Office was really the only reason anyone wanted Windows machines instead of Macs.

I remember endless Apple v. Windows debates in the early 90s when I was in college. Macs were better machines, everyone said, the whole Office thing was a huge pain. It was difficult to transfer files between operating systems, and generally speaking if you wanted to do Office stuff you needed a Windows machine. Macs were for college kids doing graphics stuff. Windows machines were for grown ups.

That all changed in the mid 90′s of course. But before people bought computers primarily to get on the Internet Apple was hurting badly. Market share was so bad there was even a question about whether Microsoft would even continue making Office for Mac.

Then everything came together for Apple at roughly the same time. Steve Jobs came back in 1997. He got Microsoft to recommit to Office on the Mac. From Wikipedia:

At the 1997 Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would be entering into a partnership with Microsoft. Included in this was a five-year commitment from Microsoft to release Microsoft Office for Macintosh as well as a US$150 million investment in Apple. As part of the deal Apple and Microsoft agreed to settle a long-standing dispute over whether Microsoft’s Windows operating system infringed on any of Apple’s patents.[47] It was also announced that Internet Explorer would be shipped as the default browser on the Macintosh. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates appeared at the expo on-screen, further explaining Microsoft’s plans for the software they were developing for Mac, and stating that he was very excited to be helping Apple return to success. After this, Steve Jobs said this to the audience at the expo:

“If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. We have to embrace a notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us that’s great, because we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s our fault. So I think that is a very important perspective. If we want Microsoft Office on the Mac, we better treat the company that puts it out with a little bit of gratitude; we like their software. So, the era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over as far as I’m concerned. This is about getting Apple healthy, this is about Apple being able to make incredibly great contributions to the industry and to get healthy and prosper again.”

But more important than any of this, was the Internet. Back then Office was the first software I’d install on a computer, and a computer without Office wasn’t fully a computer. I haven’t even bothered to install Office on my last two computers at all.

So as important as Office was in 1997, what really changed the game for Apple was the Internet. Accessed via the most important virtual machine/operating system in our lifetimes, the browser, it completely leveled the playing field.

Suddenly computers weren’t entirely about Office, they were now about Office and the Internet. Mac had only a slightly hobbled version of Office, and they had a peachy Internet experience. As the Internet matured and browsers became better the “problems” lessened significantly. A half decade ago Office became unimportant enough, and compatibility was good enough between Mac and Windows, that it became a non issue entirely.

The rise of the Internet and the fall of Office is why Apple won. Or rather it gave them the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, and all the wonderful things about Apple were able to finally influence people into actually buying them. The world went from “I’d much rather have a Mac, but Office is too important” to “I’d much rather have a Mac but the damned things are too expensive.”

Post-Office but pre-Internet Apple struggled. Post-Internet, Apple won (because the playing field leveled and then, but only then, all the things Gruber says). It’s so obvious everyone forgets.