Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft: One Platform Will Not Rule Them All

There are narratives circling the technology industry that are wearing out their welcome. The primary one is the narrative that there can only be one winner

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There are narratives circling the technology industry that are wearing out their welcome. The primary one, and the one where I wish more intelligent voices would prevail, is the narrative that there can only be one winner in this industry. Namely that for Google’s ecosystem to win, Microsoft and Apple must fail. Or that for Microsoft’s ecosystem to win, Apple and Google need to lose. And of course for Apple to win, Google and Microsoft need to lose.

Perhaps this narrative is best encapsulated in the latest Nokia Lumia smartphone TV ad, which showcases the apparent epic battle between iPhone and Android users. As funny as the commercial is, average consumers — the ones that make up the target market — really don’t care which phone you or I use. Last year I wrote a column on that very subject called “I Chose the iPhone, You Chose Android — So What?”

As far as I can tell, these narratives are rooted in not only a limited view of the technology industry’s history, but also in a very shortsighted one. It seems as though since Microsoft’s Windows platform dominated much of computing for several decades, it must mean it’s inevitable that this domination repeat itself. It seems the expectation from many is that we are simply waiting to see which platform wins. More specifically, which platform will dominate computing market share the way Microsoft did in the past. Let me explain why this is not going to happen.

Big Consumer Markets

The reason I say the “one platform to rule them all” narrative is deeply flawed is that when Microsoft dominated computing, the market was very small from a global standpoint. The market for PCs back then was tiny compared with today’s market for smartphones, for example. Small markets favor fewer players that typically dominate the segment. The global consumer market for technology is massive. Massive global consumer markets can sustain many players, competing for segments of markets, and all making money.

Look at how many automobile companies the global consumer market can sustain. Look at how many clothing companies, types of aspirin, types of cereal, etc., the market can sustain. Believing that for Google to win Apple has to lose — or vice versa — is like believing that for Pepsi to win, Coca-Cola has to lose; for Burger King to win, McDonald’s has to lose; for BMW to win, Mercedes-Benz has to lose. We all know how silly that sounds — and that’s the point.

Interestingly, even though a few major conglomerates own many of the underlying products that make up the variety I mention, each product’s success often transcends the company itself but is wrapped into a larger experience. This larger experience is bound to something central that’s key to that company’s sustainability in the global consumer market: its brand.

Now, if we must get into a discussion about who has the best chance to win or lose, I would argue that it’s not the platform we should be looking at, it’s the brand.

Brands Rule the World

When you look at the global consumer market, you simply will not find a company succeeding and competing on the basis of a product that does not have a strong brand. A strong brand stands out. It is recognizable. It leads to continually high customer satisfaction, loyalty and trust. A strong brand continually re-creates an enjoyable and memorable experience for its customers.

When a company builds a brand that the global consumer market considers valuable, it puts itself in a lasting position. Nike, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, etc., are not in danger of going out of business anytime soon. To predict their demise is as ridiculous as predicting the demise of the strong global consumer brands in the technology industry. Of course, not all brands survive. We have countless examples of mismanaged companies, which lacked the foresight to disrupt themselves and invest in the future. But the time it takes for a brand to unravel is much longer than it is for a company without a strong brand.

A strong brand is not just sustainable, it is also versatile. Brands compete well in their own markets, but a strong brand also allows a company the ability to compete in new markets with new products. A strong brand is one of the strongest, most defensible assets any company has. It is one of the foundational things that often gets overlooked in many analyses.

It’s time to rethink the importance of winners and losers in the technology industry. It’s time to take a more holistic look at which is well positioned to still exist in 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years. Products come and go, but brands have the best chance at standing the test of time.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.

15 comments
kapil
kapil

Did BRAND Nokia Stand the Test of Time? They took 4 years to their downfall

ggSolutions123
ggSolutions123

my summary is: if you like facetime and lightroom, go for iOS and Apple desktop, if you like instant notifications, easy sharing, go with Android. if you like to gamble on future potential, go with Windows Phone or BlackBerry

ggSolutions123
ggSolutions123

These OS wars have spawned the anti-fanboy fanboy (or, fangirl, in some cases) whose mission is to point out the flaws in the rival OS so that that rival doesn't "rule them all" unjustly. If the average person would just research the strengths of each OS, then these anti-fanboy fanboys wouldn't need to get so hot under the collar, but I see where it comes from. iOS is the OS of choice for alot of average people with deep pockets or are contract-bound and partly it's the plethora of Android products that are to blame. The iOS product line is small and neat and that's a big reason why average people throw their hands up and say iphone or ipad, whatever the case may be.

bjoshuarosen
bjoshuarosen

You've completely ignored the importance of network effects for computing devices which don't exist for any other product. In every computing era one company has dominated and everyone else picked up the scraps. In the mainframe era it was IBM, in the desktop PC era it was Microsoft, in the mobile device era it will probably be Google but the verdict isn't in yet. It's the value of the ecosystem that determines the value of the platform not the platform itself. Even a terrible product like Windows becomes unassailable once the tipping point has been reached. Consumers buy it because it has the most programs available, developers target it because it has the most customers. No other product has this attribute. All cars burn the same gasoline and use the same tires, there is nothing stopping a Chrysler owner from trading in his car for a Ford or a Honda except personal preference. That's not true for a computer, the existence of some particular program on one platform not on another is a huge disincentive to switching. We haven't reached the tipping point yet so it's still possible to switch mobile platforms but that will gradually change as market share gradually becomes more lopsided. Eventually one platform will have 90% of the market and then it's over.

Tom92024
Tom92024

But aren't you skipping the issue of ecosystems? It's not simply a matter of devices. For example, if I keep things stored in iCloud, those things are not available in Android. Similarly, if I keep things stored in Skydrive, do I have full use of them to use & edit them on iOS?

Since people will want their "stuff" with them everywhere, on every device (and more and more so moving forward), I think it's more important to be choosing the ecosystem you're most comfortable with, and letting that determine the device(s).

stefn
stefn

And Microsoft gobbles Nokia?

MrBenGhazi
MrBenGhazi

How about explaining how the brands of the three companies in your article help those companies specifically remain successful?

benbajarin
benbajarin

@bjoshuarosen In the early days of the Auto industry the same was true.  People gravitated to the same car brands for the same network effect reasons you mentioned.   As it matured then post matured, it fragmented and segmented and thus became capable of sustaining many players.    The auto industry has 20+ years of maturity where the PC industry has roughly reached it and other devices like smartphones and tablets will get there sooner as well.   

Obviously ecosystems play a role and thus this market is not going to sustain as many, but will sustain more than people think.   Give it 10 years then revisit where we are today vs where we are then. 

mahadragon
mahadragon

@Tom92024 Well I just checked and yes I can access my Skydrive files on my iPod touch which uses iOS.

mahadragon
mahadragon

@ZacPetit People don't buy Apple products because of the brand, they buy it for the product.

benbajarin
benbajarin

@ZacPetit Good question.  There is quite a bit that goes into some of those use cases, but obviously both marketing and quality consumer experience are parts of the strategy.   I didn't want this to get too long in the tooth and preferred to focus on the key points.  

There is only so much one can cover in a column.  

waqqas31
waqqas31

@mahadragonI must disagree with you.  If they bought it for the product, they would at least have the slightest idea what differentiates it from competing products in its category.  A good percentage of Apple "converts" are products of a ripple-effect from peers who switched to Apple.  Also, Apple has marketed their brand better than anyone else and has created an appeal in the tech world that is akin to Coach in handbags, Hugo Boss in fashion, BMW in automobiles, etc.  This is not meant to detract from the fact that despite all this, Apple does create world-class products that work well for a majority of people.

fireball0093
fireball0093

@waqqas31 I agree, yet I also slightly disagree with a few things. There are people, such as myself, that buy it for the product, because it offers what I am interested in. I used Microsoft Windows for as long as I can remember, yet for my interests in things, which is Digital Media, Apple's OS X platform offers way more in depth and intuitive programs, thus the product. There are people out there like you stated, that buy it for the brand and just to be that guy that has an expensive laptop, such as a few people I know. So in the end, there are people that buy it for the product, such as myself and others out there, yet there are people like you stated that just buy it to have it.