Keep your enemies closer

Apple thrives on its underdog status. Ever since the company’s inception, it’s traded on its self-defined reputation as (in the words of one of its own commercials ) misfits, rebels, troublemakers, round pegs in square holes. Apple is the salmon of the personal computing world.

But to maintain the image of the persecuted minority, there must necessarily be a persecuting majority. The only trouble is that over the last 30 years Apple and Steve Jobs have had a habit of converting their staunchest enemies into their most steadfast allies.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the personal-computing scene was in its infancy, Apple faced stiff competition from IBM. Ten years later, and the PowerPC processor, developed in conjunction with IBM, was being heralded as the savior of a Mac platform that had been left in the dust by competitor Intel’s new Pentium line. Ten years after that , Steve Jobs gave a repeat performance, announcing that the Mac would switch to Intel’s Core processor architecture, robbing the PowerPC line of its last major personal computing contract.

And then there’s the eternal nemesis, Microsoft. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the Professor X and Magneto of the technology world: alternately rivals and allies, they have markedly different means to their respective ends. Microsoft DOS and later Windows were the Mac OS’s hardiest competition throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The PC field was seemingly locked into an inexorable cold war, a struggle of platform ideology that Apple looked doomed to lose. And yet, when Apple reached its nadir in 1997, it was Microsoft’s $150 million investment and commitment to continue developing Office that helped get Apple back on its feet—to the Mac community, it was a blood transfusion from its worst enemy.

A decade has passed since that deal, and Apple is sitting on top of the world, having conveniently forgotten its Faustian bargain. On the face of it, the company’s behavior toward its biggest opponent has hardly softened. Apple continues to jab Microsoft in its marketing and ads today. But as far as Apple is concerned, it’s like teasing an old, defanged circus bear. In the current climate, Microsoft is no more likely to brings its powerful but sluggish arsenal to bear on Apple than the sun is to randomly obliterate the moon.

Not that it really matters, as the third and final act of Steve Jobs’s hat trick was a little Trojan horse called Boot Camp (and the subsequent third-party virtualization packages like Parallels and VMWare ). The ability to run Windows on a Mac has rendered moot the age-old argument that Macs just aren’t compatible with the vast majority of software—now they’re ultimately compatible. Boot Camp is an insurance policy: a way for Apple to inoculate itself against the threat of Windows. Because now there’s nothing a Windows machine can run that a comparable Mac can’t. And as with Apple’s alliances with IBM and Intel, the ability of Macs to run Windows will inevitably leave Apple stronger than it was before.

With its three chief rivals effectively neutralized, does that mean that Apple’s continued success is a foregone conclusion? Apple has apparently carved out a niche in the technology marketplace and it’s one that’s surprisingly free of natural predators. With a market capitalization of more than $100 billion, over $13 billion in the bank, and stock trading at better than $120 a share, “dead” and “Apple” are terms that can only reasonably coexist in crazed ramblings or fiction. And with key alliances from next-generation powerhouses like Yahoo and Google, is there no opponent left that could take Apple down?

Well, if FDR were around today—and deeply invested in technological issues—he might say that the only thing for Apple to fear is Apple itself. Microsoft is learning that being at the top means there’s just that much farther to fall, and that’s one of the reasons that Apple is perfectly comfortable exactly where it is. All this talk of Apple supplanting Microsoft, or Redmond crushing Cupertino is foolhardy and misplaced. Microsoft is Apple’s last rival of any import and Apple needs them, just as they need Apple. The two have a symbiotic relationship; not just in business or software, but in ideology. The loss of Microsoft’s dominance—or even just its relevance —could very well be the worst thing ever to happen to Apple, prompting Jobs and company into a lax complacency that would be their undoing. Apple needs something to rebel against: after all, how can you admonish people to think different when everybody thinks like you?

  
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