Here we go again.  We’ve been here before.  History always repeats itself.

In the early days of the desktop computer, it was the Wild West.  No computer was dominant because they all simply had not been around long enough.  The movie, “The Pirates of Silicon Valley”, described this era well, and was a time of company after company innovating, stealing features from their competitors that they lacked, and then their competitors innovating and doing the same.  It’s a virtuous cycle that continues to repeat itself even today, resulting in more competition and better technology as a result.  As we move from platform to platform this cycle will continue, over and over again, and consumers will always end up, as a majority, choosing the most popular player that provides “choice”, without regard to any potential benefit the less popular player may give them when it comes to a more close environment at the benefit of a better experience.

Microsoft’s Platform: Choice, at the Sacrifice of Experience

As Microsoft began to gain a handle on the market, taking the software route and letting go of the hardware market, Apple, the other consumer desktop player was trying to control the hardware experience, and Microsoft’s business took off.  Microsoft was unstoppable, momentum pushing them faster and faster to the point of almost Monopoly.  It even got to the point where markets they never even considered competing in, such as the web browser, had no chance because Microsoft had control of the operating system where those markets ran.

Microsoft’s entire platform was about choice. You chose the hardware you ran.  You chose the software you ran on it.  Heck, the hardware was open enough you could also run other operating systems such as Linux on it.  The Microsoft environment promoted this type of mentality, and, like it or not, perhaps was part of the cause and motivation towards the Free Software and Open Source Software movement that is so prevalent today.

Apple’s Platform: Closed, at the Advantage of Experience

During the entire time Microsoft was growing and booming into the company it is today, Apple maintained its consistency.  It wasn’t going to give up the tightly-integrated hardware and software experience at the risk of losing the full experience Apple was known for.  When you bought an Apple product, you knew the software on the product was going to work well with the hardware it was built on.  The software was designed specifically for that hardware.  In return the customer got an experience that made that customer the die-hard Apple fanboy you see today.  They gained a loyal, devout following as a result, “The Cult of Mac”.

The Cycle Continues

So here we are today.  It took an entirely new device to start the cycle over again – a music device, the iPod, which eventually turned into a phone and Apple was able to gain control of the music industry in the process through iTunes (which is, in essence, a cloud based product that downloads files to your computer).  This gave them the advantage they needed to innovate and bring new customers in at a faster rate than ever before.

Soon competitors emerged.  Palm released WebOS.  Google released Android.  Microsoft released the Zune and will soon be releasing Windows Phone 7.  Now we are in an exactly similar battle we saw in the early desktop days, companies fighting on choice.  Companies fighting to gain momentum.  The companies who chose choice gaining the most momentum.  The companies choosing to remain consistent losing that momentum, but maintaining a reliable reputation and great experience.

Are the Fanboys Learning?

There was a large group of people who chose the consistent, closed, better experience without ever having taste of the choice.  This group of people are now tasting that as what used to be neutral ground, Google, has built Android and entered this battle themselves on the premise of choice.  Now these users, who were users of both, are being forced to make a choice, and they’re experiencing something they’ve never experienced before: freedom.

I read fascinating posts like Louis Gray’s and his reasons for switching to Android, yet battling to leave Apple entirely, and I notice a struggle to leave that experience entirely.  He knows the good taste of the experience Apple provides.  At the same time he finally sees the choice the decoupling of software and hardware can provide.  He’s finally seeing the advantages of an Operating System embraced by the masses.  He’s not alone in this struggle.

The “Choosers” Finally Taste Experience

It goes the other way too though.  There are many out there (such as Robert Scoble), myself included somewhat, that finally realized what a beautiful thing Apple was from the iPhone.  We went with the masses over to the device and discovered what a beautiful thing having a nicely coupled experience could be.  We were brought over to Macs and iBooks and MacBooks and iPads, and were brought to wonder what in the world we were missing in our world of “choice” before.

At the same time we’ve seen the “choice” world.  We know what choice means, and we know it means more struggle.  We know it means more configuration and more bugs and more problems with the OS not always working properly with the hardware it was installed on.  We know not all the applications will have the same consistant experience we get with the Apple experience.  We haven’t given it up, but we do know which one we like better.

We’re at an interesting crossroads right now.  Right now I carry at all times in my pockets an iPhone 4 and an Android-based Evo.  My wife runs a Pre, which I also carried on my person for quite awhile.  While, as a developer and blogger, I choose all of them, I always fall back to one.  I always fall back to the one that’s most convenient.  I always fall back to the one where my applications will be most reliable.  I always fall back to the one that works best with the overall experience of technology in my home and in my life.  I fall back to the one whose batteries aren’t dead.  No matter how hard I try, the Apple experience seems to keep winning me over.

I don’t care if any company has momentum.  I’ve stopped caring about Choice.  In the end it’s about efficiency.  It’s about productivity.  It’s about what makes me the best person I can be and what I can feel most comfortable using with the least amount of effort.  It’s about “choosing” the best experience that I know will continue to be reliable over time, and has a reliable track record in doing so.  For this user, at least so far, I will continue to fall back on experience.

Image courtesy http://appadvice.com/appnn/2009/10/microsofts-apple-impression/