Sunday, November 25, 2007

The real threat to Microsoft and Apple

I'm not much of a salesman -- except on the rare occasion that I'm selling something I really believe in.

Twice I've made the big sale. One of those times was when I sold a rural school group on moving from the computer lab model to the computer library model -- @ 1992. Using the ultra-portable no hard-drive Apple Newton laptop.

Mercifully the school group came to their senses the next day and the plan died. A few months later the Newton laptop died too. Few now recall its brief existence.

Fifteen years later that original plan is becoming feasible ...
Charlie's Diary: Commoditizing our future

...Well, the OLPC XO-1 is now out, costs $188 in bulk (a chunk of which is attributable to the dollar collapsing in the meantime), and hasn't exactly taken the world by storm — but succeeded in sticking the proverbial cattle prod up Microsoft and Intel's collective arse. For too long, the software and CPU giants had been treating the PC market as a cash cow, with a natural floor on the price of the product; the XO-1 proved that they were overcharging grossly. Intel's reaction was the Classmate reference design, their own purported rival to the XO-1; the Asus Eee is what you get when a large far eastern OEM thinks 'hang on, can we commoditize this and sell it in bulk?' Microsoft, incidentally, failed to make it onto the Eee bandwagon because they wanted $40 for a Windows XP license — on a machine that starts at $250 for the stripped-down version. Mine runs Linux perfectly well, thank you, and comes with the basic stuff you need to be productive; OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, Firefox as a web browser, and some other gadgets (like Skype and a webcam).
My first calculator cost about $180 in the early 1970s, required a plug, used wires to form numbers, and was bigger than my MacBook. Within 10 years similar machines were being distributed in cereal boxes.

That was commoditization.

I thought the same thing would happen to the Palm, that within 10 years we'd have similar things in our cereal boxes. After all, there were no moving parts.

That didn't happen, because Palm controlled the software and because the market for personal organizers turned out to be much smaller than I'd imagined.

I think Stross is right that we're again on the cusp of true calculator-style commoditization. The trick has been open source software, ruthless competition on the hardware side, the plummeting price of solid state storage and the development of low power designs that can run off commodity batteries (and outlets).

The DRM marketplace will keep proprietary system vendors alive for a while -- only they will be able to partner with media owners. How long, however, can the DRM market resist such a tide of low cost non-DRM compatible hardware?

On the other front, Google's Android reference mobile phone design has its natural home on millions of 2012 cell phones distributed throughout Africa.

Samsara happens.

This is a bad time for both Microsoft and (to a lesser extent) Apple to be demonstrating severe quality and reliability problems. Quality and cost-of-ownership are the most obvious ways Apple can slow the tide long enough to find a way to surf along (Android uses Apple's WebKit for example). If Apple and Microsoft continue to cede that advantage, they'll be obliterated.

Hmm. Microsoft cratering. The US dollar in free fall. Peak oil showing up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. A $400 billion mortgage market collapse. Should be an interesting decade.

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