No matter how much of a force a company might seem, all good things must come to an end. That’s not to say that today’s juggernauts will vanish overnight, but the tech world is littered with the corpses of powerful, even massive companies that failed to adapt to changing times and were either marginalized or became the dust of ages -- Wang, DEC, Tandy, SGI, Compaq. More recently we witnessed the collapse of Sun into the murky depths of Larry Ellison’s ego. No matter how significant a corporation might become, it is not immortal.
A few have more staying power and diversified well enough that they have a (possibly) longer lifespan than most. IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Apple appear to be in this category.
Apple in particular has been riding a seemingly endless wave of innovation and success, coupled with shrewd business practices that have made it all but unassailable. It’s unlikely that its position would be unseated by a direct competitor in mobile and high-end laptop and desktop sales solely due to the prowess of that rival -- Apple would have to screw up repeatedly with major missteps to help that process along.
That may be happening right now. The recent slip in iPhone sales and precipitous market drop is one indicator, as is the symbolism of Apple’s market capitalization dipping below Google’s. Apple is no longer the largest company in the world.
Granted, these are stock market numbers, not necessarily directly tied to reality, but they hit after Apple’s stumbles became more apparent. We’re seeing fewer Apple laptops at Linux conferences. We’re being subjected to a ridiculously high OS X release rate, and the quality of those releases is declining. Newer MacBooks have taken the minimalist approach perhaps too far for many, and Apple’s casual attitude toward discontinuing support for critical drivers and technologies in newer releases is alienating audio, video, and graphics power users, which is never a good idea.
Apple will still need plenty of help to continue this decline. The Internet abhors a vacuum, and the millions of Apple users have to go somewhere if Apple lets the sun set on its 15 years of world-changing innovation. It’s doubtful that those users will go back to Windows when Microsoft has already fallen down the same hole Apple is approaching. The Windows 10 update death march continues and, with it, an increased sense that Microsoft is flailing and failing. I don’t know anyone who is overjoyed about upgrading to Windows 10, just as I don’t know anyone who is happy moving from Mac OS X to Windows 10. Some have done it, but they’re not pleased.
There’s the vacuum. The Linux geeks at conferences aren’t running OS X anymore; instead, they’re opting for one of the stable and polished Linux desktop distributions such as Arch, Mint, or Fedora. Some are basically giving up on local computing and running Chromebooks or other minimalistic systems. Some are moving to tablets. Microsoft is trying to entice them to move to Windows -- but I don’t give that much hope.
It remains to be seen where this trend goes. Apple could pull an about-face and recover. Google/Alphabet could summon a supernatural force and make a huge play for the desktop. We could drift for a while with no clear leader until the underlying technologies advance to the point where the entire game shifts and a new company changes how we interact with computers, the Internet, and each other. Unlike any time in the past two decades where we’ve seen distinct forerunners and the unmistakable advancement of a competitor, we may now be in a state of flux and disarray.
That might not be a bad development at all.