Whaddya want, a Beemer or a Ford?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Jun 1989 (guess) - scanned

Not so long ago, I argued in this column that although the Macintosh user interface was deep and consistent, ordinary people might still buy the more superficial Windows Presentation Manager or X-Window-based products. I was actually supporting the Macintosh yet, from the written howls of outrage, you'd have thought I was pushing the alternatives.

Mind you, I think these alternatives are looking increasingly good. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself playing with a beta copy of an as yet unannounced graphical user interface, which sits on top of X-Windows which, in turn, sits on top of Unix. It was just as satisfying during my short exposure as using my Macintosh. Naturally, I have no idea what my long term feelings would be, but let's just say the signs are promising. Apple may not be as far ahead of the market as many would like to think.

Here's a little perspective I dug out of a Financial Times report on the European personal computer market. The market research company, Dataquest, suggested that Apple's 1989 market share was running at 7.4%. It didn't say whether this is by volume or by value but I hope, for Apple's sake, it is volume. Otherwise the figure would look even worse, due to Apple's generally higher pricing.

I asked various Apple watchers whether they thought this figure reflected the situation in the UK. The interesting thing is that the optimists put Apple's UK PC share at around the 10% mark by volume and 12% by value. Even if the figure were 15%, that still makes you part of a small, albeit enthusiastic and loyal, minority.

I know several prominent Macintosh enthusiasts who truly believe that Apple is the centre of the computing universe. They are blind to the PC reality. The truth, as illustrated above, is somewhat different and it is not likely to change significantly. Apple might even make it to 20%. Who knows? The fact remains that it has to share the PC and workstation pot with many determined companies- like Compaq Computer, Olivetti, not to mention IBM.

Apple is going to have to pull something really significant out of the hat if it is to ever dominate the industry. My guess is that it won't. When the Macintosh was announced, the technology it was built on had already been conceived 10 years before. Everyone 'knew' that WIMPS was the way to go, but no-one, until Apple, had the guts to put it on the desktop. It would be reasonable to assume that the next great leap in technology is already 'known', but there's no buzz going round about what it might be.

People are talking quite seriously about speech input and output, about distributed processing and about intelligent agents. But, even if Apple adopted any of these, it wouldn't be very long before its competitors were once again snapping at its heels. No, I believe that Apple's future role will be as a 'me too' manufacturer, rather like BMW is a 'me too' car maker. It will differentiate itself on quality and thoughtfulness and, whenever it gets the chance, a technology advance ahead of the competition.

The motor car analogy is quite an interesting one to pursue. Although the car industry hasn't moved at the same breathtaking pace as the computer industry, many of the trends are similar. Huge steamship and railway companies scoffed when the internal combustion engine was invented. Without roads and drivers, they couldn't see the motor car becoming a threat.

They were wrong in the same way that the minicomputer companies were caught wrong-footed when the personal computer first came along. Now, although they all sport at least one personal computer offering, they are seeing their low-end minicomputer sales withering as the high end of the personal computers take over. Mac lls and high-end PCs are perfectly capable of driving the sort of network that once demanded a minicomputer.

And, continuing with the car analogy, look at how advanced today's mass market cars are compared with 30 years ago. Then, only expensive marques sported servo-assisted braking or rear window de-misters, but now these features are commonplace. Features from expensive cars regularly migrate to lesser vehicles. Innovation continues at the high end, but much of it is invisible to all except the driver, passengers and mechanics among us.

Apple could rightly be seen as the upmarket innovator in the computer context. It knows its ideas are going to be pinched and implemented elsewhere, so it continues to innovate. Unfortunately, unless you are the user, someone watching a user, or someone who keeps in touch with technical developments, these improvements become increasingly less visible.

Even in sales methods, there's a parallel with the car industry. Most cars are sold through authorised dealers. Several years ago, only second tier garages would take on the BMW franchise. Nowadays, many of the owners of those same garages are millionaires. BMW was just another fish in the motor trade pond but, thanks to its superb engineering and attention to detail, it has now become a very popular machine among those who can afford it.

The BMW story strikes me as the ideal parallel for Apple. There's nothing wrong with you being part of a minority, as long as the manufacturer earns enough to stay in business. But do, please, accept the fact that millions more users will continue to be perfectly satisfied with their computing equivalent of Fords and Vauxhalls.