Why the PC makers and Microsoft will never beat Apple

Pretty cases for laptops aren't why Apple's sales continue to grow and PC sales stagger

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that struggling Hewlett-Packard was doubling its investment in PC designers to overcome its design disadvantage against Apple. The Journal quoted CEO Meg Whitman, who took the job a year ago, as saying when she became CEO she was handed a "brick" that had no appeal to her as a user. This anecdote was supposed to explain how HP has ended up becoming a boring PC maker with declining sales of PCs against the Apple juggernaut.

Maybe I've been in this business too long, but I've heard this refrain from PC makers every few years, and it goes nowhere. Remember Dell's Adamo design a few years ago meant to compete with the stylish and, for its time, impossibly thin MacBook Air? Before that, Lenovo was banking on innovative design to make people want PCs; prior to that, it was Acer, preceded by HP. On and on it goes. Every time Apple has come up with an innovative industrial design, PC makers have tried to copy it for fashion points.

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Each time, PC makers found it didn't really help.

Don't get me wrong: Aesthetics matter, and it'd be nice if so many PCs weren't mere bricks. But putting a PC in a nice case doesn't address the real reason PC sales are struggling while Mac sales continue to zoom -- and iPad sales even more.

The real reason for Apple's growth in a stalled PC market is that the entire user experience is better. Apple designs the complete environment: the OS X operating system, the hardware, the core applications, and the constellation of services such as iTunes, iCloud, Time Machine, AirDrop, and AirPlay that together create the Apple experience. Even when some components are not very good, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That's not the case on a PC. At best, a PC's whole is the same as the sum of its parts. More typically, the whole is less than the sum. Windows 7 is a good operating system, for example, but it doesn't fit all the scenarios of the hardware it runs on, and individual PC makers vary widely in the quality of their drivers and so on. As a small example, OS X knows to put an Eject icon in its menu bar when you attach a DVD drive to a Mac that doesn't normally have one such as a Mac Mini, for which users bring their own keyboards that may not have an Eject key.

But where PCs really fall down is in the extended ecosystem, where the variety of possible hardware makes it difficult for any one PC maker to create the equivalent of AirDrop zero-configuration file sharing, iTunes media management, AirPlay streaming, or Time Machine automated backup and versioning. Apple provides a wealth of services, not just computing devices. PC makers need Microsoft to do that before they can nurse any hope of the technologies working across a large spectrum of devices. Apple's proprietary nature solves that challenge in the OS X world.

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