31 Years of the Cult of Mac – A Tale of Anticipation

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The purpose of business is to stay in business – and therein hangs a tale.

Preparedness, the readiness to respond to a serious disruptive event and recover from that event is important. Disruptive events include more than natural and man-made disasters. They also include business disruptions. Business disruptions, as made famous by Clayton Christensen and his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, have killed more, bigger businesses than have floods, fires, and cyber attacks. A single example from The Innovator’s Dilemma is the saga of mass computer storage. In the days of mainframe computers, data was stored on peripheral magnetic hard drives. These hard drives were major appliances – with a footprint of five or six square feet and weighing over a hundred pounds.  The companies that built these behemoths focused on increasing the storage density and reducing the access time. Meanwhile, other companies were researching “floppy” discs: Eight-inch diameter discs and their associated drive units were developed and sold. These discs had nowhere near the capacity of the large hard drives, but they were convenient and users had entire libraries of discs – each with its own data, something not possible with the hard drives. The eight-inch disc begat the five-and-a-quarter-inch disc that begat the three-and-a-half-inch disc – all of which fundamentally killed the huge hard drive business.

The large hard drive manufacturers could easily have foreseen this sequence of events. There was no magic technology involved.  There was no “eureka” invention. It was a relatively slow development over about a decade. How did they not see it coming?

Part of any kind of preparedness is maintaining “anticipatory awareness.” The future is unknown and unknowable, but it can be anticipated. I’m using that term to include the fact that future events can only be anticipated with some probability or level of confidence. If a baseball player hits a ball, I can anticipate that it will return to earth within five hundred feet – with a very high confidence level. If, on the other hand, I consider the behavior of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), I can anticipate that it will change by no more than 500 points on the next trading day – but my confidence, although high, is not as high as my anticipation of the distance the ball player can hit the ball. If I want to anticipate the level of the DJIA for January 2nd 2025, my confidence level will be much, much lower. None of that means that the future is completely obscure, only that we need to invest time, effort and resources in establishing and acting on our “anticipations.”

Back to our tale. Long ago, Bill Gates became infatuated with programmable computers. At roughly the same time Steve Wozniak Bill Gates Microsoftbecame equally intrigued by the programmability of electronic devices and Steve Jobs took a college course in calligraphy. Mr. Gates anticipated the potential for mini-computers and microcomputers in a computer-enabled business world. Messrs. Wozniak and Gates anticipated broad use of very small computers in the home. IBM offered Mr. Gates the opportunity to create an operating system for small computers. He took the offer, and, based on his anticipation of a business market for small computers, negotiated retention of all the future rights to that operating system (IBM anticipated profits in the manufacture and sale of computers – not in the software).  Mr. Gates went on to found Microsoft and its core businesses of operating systems (DOS then Windows) and business applications (now Microsoft Office Suite). Microsoft also decided to open their operating system for third-party application developers. Good anticipation.

Meanwhile, Messrs. Wozniak and Jobs were making and selling, under their company, Apple, small computers for the home. With their focus on the home/personal market, Apple developed an exceptional user interface – the now familiar and ubiquitous desktop, icons and “point-and-click” mouse. But they hadn’t anticipated the business market that Gates and Microsoft did. They also decided to keep their operating system proprietary and closed to third-party application developers. This decision led Apple into a decidedly inferior market position. Some good anticipation, some not so good. In fact, these decisions led to the departure of Steve Jobs from the Apple leadership and the move by Apple to copy the Microsoft approach of serving the business market, focusing on software and allowing third parties to build Apple “clones.” This approach was viewed by Apple aficionados as a betrayal of all that made Apple computers attractive. Another example of poor anticipation.

Back comes Steve Jobs. In a series of anticipatory moves, Mr. Jobs directed the creation of the Apple iMac that jettisoned the floppy drive and emphasized connectivity to the Internet. This move was severely criticized by the computer business, but quickly proved the brilliance of the decision by Apple. In 2001, in a reactionary vs. anticipatory mode (reacting to the long-open Microsoft DOS and Windows operating systems) Apple released their new operating system, OSX which allowed third-party developers to provide applications to run on Apple computers using OSX.

Apple and Steve JobsIn parallel, Microsoft missed the power of the Internet (at least in the early days) and continued to push MSDOS and its business applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint).

The Apple intuitive interface, ease of use, and native Internet connectivity drew an increasingly large market of video games fans, artists (professional and amateur) and power users who were not computer experts. Apple became a tool that was a computer, foreshadowing the connected, smart world of today.

Microsoft moved to an interface like that of Apple only reluctantly. The company continues to focus on the computer and software – not on solutions provided by something that was a computer.

As the Twentieth Century became the Twenty-first Century, Apple made another anticipatory move with its iPod and the associated iTunes ecosystem, revolutionizing the music and cellular phone industries as the iPod begat the iPhone begat the iPad.

The critical point is that business leaders, to stay in business, need to develop and implement a strategy for “business as usual” while, simultaneously, developing and implementing a strategy to respond to disruptions whether those disruptions are physical disruptions or business disruptions. Since the future can only be anticipated, and then only within bounds, business must create and maintain anticipatory awareness, continually monitoring the present and using that as a baseline for anticipating the future for both threats and opportunities.

The anticipatory race between Apple and Microsoft and their competitors is not over – who is your anticipatory race opponent?

View an infograph of the 31-year history of Macintosh here.

31 years of mac

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