We are coming up to the end of the year, and it is traditional to look ahead – and hope the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. Next year will bring a number of major changes for three of the biggest players in consumer electronics right now.
For Apple, we are currently speculating, again, that Steve Jobs may leave shortly because of health reasons. This would mean a change for that company in line with his return in 1996, and Apple yanking its presence from MacWorld, while expected, was not a good initial sign. Snow Leopard, the Apple netbook, and a third-generation iPhone are all expected next year.
Microsoft, which has been struggling with Windows Vista, is expected to release a vastly improved Windows 7. Its mobile counterpart, though, may be the more important product for the future – and it currently is at risk. Finally, Microsoft will start providing antivirus support for free, as customers have requested. But will the OEMs stick with them?
Google’s PC platform, currently rumored to be in beta, is expected to arrive next year as well, along with the full production version of its Android phones. The company will attempt to do what Microsoft has so far failed to do, and take the battle for the next generation phone to Apple. This last may be the biggest game changer of all, because, unlike Microsoft or Apple, Google doesn’t have to worry about cannibalizing anything in market.
It seems increasingly likely that 2008 was Steve Jobs’ last full year on the job at Apple. His intuition with regard to what will sell, and his ability to make his own decisions self-fulfilling prophesies remains unmatched in the market. And, unfortunately, unmatched in Apple. Currently, there is no indication that anyone inside or outside Apple can fill his shoes, and that is probably the biggest problem Apple will need to solve in 2009.
On the positive side, Snow Leopard is also due out, and Apple should be able to bring at least one touch-screen Mac to market with its launch. But, without Jobs, will it be able to attract the number of new converts that has made the company so successful in the past few years?
The third-generation iPhone is also due. And with a stripped-down second-generation iPhone expected at $100 entry price points at Wal-Mart, the question remains whether Apple will expand the line to include a Nano-like product. It may make more sense to do one that includes a keyboard instead, to address the bigger competitive shortcoming against Blackberry and Android users. Which way Apple decides to go will likely carry it far in assuring the iPhone’s lead.
Finally, with current economic problems, Apple clearly needs a low-cost line that still maintains margins. Currently, netbooks are the sales champs in the fourth quarter. Apple missed this opportunity this year, and likely will pay for it. But the company focuses on financial performance like a laser, suggesting it will address this hole in its product line next year with the first Apple netbook, likely one of the first with Nvidia graphics. But don’t expect it to be the cheapest, because Apple doesn’t do cheap. A new iMac is also very likely.
The market is moving mobile, spelling the end for ever bigger, more bloated operating systems and applications. Windows 7 is the first version of Windows that will actually be substantially leaner than its predecessor, as it has been designed to run on netbook-like products from day one. This will be a critical dance for the firm, because if they miss a step, they could likely fall well below 80 percent of the market and begin bleeding OEMs. If that happens, we’ll likely call the age of Microsoft over, much like we called the age of IBM over in the 90s. The product will bring touch to the mainstream, and promises to be the most reliable, fastest, and most secure desktop platform ever to come out of Redmond. But the big questions will be: Can Microsoft market it effectively? Can it get the OEMs fully on board? And will it restore confidence in the platform? It has better do all three. The year 2009 will be a Windows 7 year for Microsoft, and it starts in January at CES.
Windows Mobile 7 may actually be the more important platform, but there are increased concerns that it is doing a Windows Vista thing, and shifting from slipping by month to slipping by year. Several phone manufactures are hedging their bets with Google’s Android, and Palm is moving back to doing its own OS, called Nova, which doesn’t bode well for its support of Windows Mobile. Smart phones are quickly evolving to be the new PC, and much as IBM was displaced by a move from terminals to PCs, Microsoft could be displaced by the move to smartphone-like devices. Windows Mobile 7 is the most powerful weapon they have to offset this, but if it doesn’t make it to the battlefield, it can’t win the battle.
One thing we know for sure is that Microsoft is finally reversing an earlier mistake, and starting to own more of the quality for its platform by including anti-virus protection for free. This provides a strong counterpoint to Apple’s cavalier “what-me-worry?” approach to security. That attitude has already bit the company in the butt, with the new U.S. President expected to be using the most targeted Mac in the world.
Google: Microsoft Killer, or Bag of Hot Air?
Think of the G1 as a beta product that actually did surprisingly well. Google is expected to bring out the full platform next year, but its win is far from a sure thing. The most interesting move is expected to be its own version of a netbook or PC platform product. Based on a proprietary version of Linux (in much the same way that the MacOS is a proprietary version of BSD UNIX,) the offering shows promise. However, Google’s final release of Chrome, the browser that will be at the core of this new platform, was less than thrilling. It might even suggest that the company isn’t even up to Microsoft production levels yet, and they need to at least equal Apple’s if this is to be successful.
Getting to adequate quality may push the acceptable version of this platform out to 2010. That may give Microsoft the time it needs for Windows 7 to help repair relationships with OEMs, and block the platform from making a massive, and incredibly damaging to Microsoft, entry.
Android for the phone, however, is still making strong progress, with the bugs fixed in the software platform and vastly more attractive phones slated for release next year. Google understood that keyboards are critical to the existing users of competing phones, and did a better job addressing that need than Apple did, even with its initial beta offering. Google has enticed Motorola and HTC from Microsoft, along with 12 others at this time, and the end result should be a solid run at RIM, Apple and Microsoft. While its Application Store hasn’t had as many applications, the quality of what each app does has been higher, on average, than Apple’s, which is promising. Still, the iPhone game advantage surprised everyone, apparently including Apple, and it will be hard to close that gap quickly. On paper, Google is ahead of Microsoft at the moment in terms of buzz and phone maker support.
Google is the favorite for doing to Microsoft what Microsoft did to IBM, and 2009 will be the first real indication of whether it can demonstrate more than the hot air that Netscape did a decade ago.
2009 will be a year of change and conflict. Netbooks and smartphones move into spaces where desktop and laptop PCs once were predominant, much like those form factors did to the terminals of the last century. Price points will get ever lower, wireless ever more prevalent, and our lives will increasingly be defined more by the web, a decade after Netscape promised to drive this same shift. Google is the latest challenger to Microsoft’s control, while Apple will likely have to redefine itself following Steve Jobs’ departure, birthing a new Apple as a result.
Hard economic realities are going to force a series of massive changes; we’ve only discussed a few. For those that don’t like change, 2009 will suck. Even for those of us that do, it will likely be a year testing how much we can actually handle. In the end, though, I expect it will leave the world a better place, and remember: That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. In that regard, I expect we will all be a lot stronger in 12 months.
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