When Tech Companies War, Do You Lose?

When consumers have to choose sides in tech battles -- like Apple vs. Microsoft -- they dont always win.

History, as they say, is written by the winners. And nowhere is this more true than in consumer electronics. Read the official histories, and every new technology seems to quickly devolve into a duel to the death between a pair of well-run companies, both of which have invented top-notch products.

HP vs. Tektronix, Apple vs. Microsoft, Google vs. Yahoo, Intel vs. Motorola, MySpace vs. Facebook, etc., etc. In retrospect, it always looks like winner versus almost-winner, with consumers always benefiting, whichever side they choose.

The reality, of course, is very different. The truth is that every hot new consumer electronics business -- going all of the way back to radio and television, up through calculators and digital watches to today's smartphones and MP3 players -- is quickly swarmed by scores of competitors, most of them doomed. I can remember, as a young reporter, having to cover 150 new disk drive companies, 50 calculator companies, and something like 80 personal computer companies. Nearly all of them died, of course, typically in a mass shakeout about 18 months after the boom began, leaving only the two or three that make the history books.

The problem is that all of those doomed companies had customers, thousands of them in some cases, all of whom thought they were buying from a winner. And, all those benighted customers, instead of enjoying the fruits of the digital revolution during that period, instead got screwed. They ended up with orphan hardware or software that had no future, no follow-up, no customer support and, ultimately, no company. We regularly trumpet the benefits of Moore's Law, with its ability to make everything digital perpetually cheaper, smaller and more powerful … but Moore's Law only works for consumers who buy successful stuff.

Let me give you an example from my own life -- that is, from a person who makes his living supposedly from being on top of the latest new tech trend. Although my use of computers dates back to the late '60s, when, as a young teenager, I learned to do a little programming via punched cards, then terminals, on mainframes, my first personal computer was an Apple III, given to me by Steve Jobs in exchange for doing some writing for Apple. I could have had an Apple II, but I thought the III was more state-of-the-art. Bad choice.

My next computer was a Corvus workstation, also obtained in exchange for some writing work. Ever heard of Corvus? Yep, bad choice.

Then I bought a Mac IIsi. A nice computer, but I really wanted one of those cool black NeXT computers. Only poverty spared me from that bad choice.

Giving Up on Macs

I gave up on Macs after too many trips to the computer store and noticing that the Mac software section took up a single shelf, while Windows software filled the rest of the store. Besides, a co-author of the book I was writing insisted on a windows machine. So I went with IBM just about the time Apple became cool again. Moderately bad choice.

After the IBM desktop, I switched to an early Toshiba laptop. It weighed a ton and just about dislocated my shoulder on one particularly long business trip. Bad choice. So I switched to IBM laptops. Luckily, the one I bought was built like a tank -- except for the hinge connecting the CPU to the display. Moderately good choice.

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