I remember how hard it was to be a Mac user in 1997. You had to wonder how long the platform would survive in a world of PCs and when Apple's infamous death spiral would end.
Three years, many computers and zillions of Web articles later, we can take the facts, compare them and make them talk. It is amazing how things changed, in contradiction with the state of affairs at the time. Moreover, where is this leading us? What does the future reserve for us?
From 1997 to 2000
A comparative look at Apple's past and current situation tells us a lot about how ironic life can be.
Before and during a part of 1997, Apple went through the most difficult period of its existence. Each quarter made its loyal customers squeak since there was always a reason for Apple to report losses. No matter if it was the acquisition of another company or just bad sales numbers, there was always something wrong.
On the evangelistic side, the morale of the troops was down. Only the most radical fans were out there to spread the word about the platform's worthiness.
Microsoft? Hell, it did not consider the Mac important enough to ship Word 6.0 on a CD, leaving the users with 14 floppy discs to install it. Fun... especially if one of those floppies went bad. Do not forget that Word offered a PC interface and a very "un-Mac-like" overall behavior. In fact, did Microsoft really care at all about the Mac?
Apple's product line? It sucked. Confusion prevailed for those who tried to find out which Mac would fit their needs and which model had the appropriate software bundled.
The stock? Well... it was down. Way down. It was the perfect moment to buy AAPL and get rich later :-)
Then things changed. Steve Jobs came back, Microsoft invested into Apple and inked a deal to continue to distribute Office for the Mac, etc.
On to the year 2000
Apple's stock trades very high these days and we are talking about a stock split, which is a very good thing. AAPL is no longer a risky investment, though it was more profitable to buy it when it was lower.
Profits keep piling up and Apple has enough cash available to invest in other companies like Akamai Tech., Samsung, etc. In 1997, Microsoft invested in Apple and now, Apple is investing in several other companies.
Still about Microsoft... their Mac software offering kicks butt now after sucking for so long. Office 98 is a much better version than 4.2.1 while Outlook Express and Internet Explorer became Internet giants with their excellent usability. More importantly, MS came up with features for the Mac first, just like the drag and drop installation coupled with the self-repair applications. That is quite a change of attitude for a company that accustomed us to bad ports of its Windows versions.
The relationship between Apple and MS changed so much too. They battled in court over all kinds of issues for so many years. Now they are business partners who may not agree on everything, but they do work together more than in the past and you can sense it.
The relationship between MS and Mac users did grow and change. A few years ago, it was very easy to live without Microsoft, but right now, an increasing number of people like MS software for the Mac.
Internet Explorer is probably the best example. After the release of version 5.0 (less than a month ago) and the announcement of the laughable Netscape 6, quite a few users stated in Internet forums that they had had enough of Netscape. Those people made IE their default browser because they like it. Judging from the present condition of Netscape, many users are actually happy that MS improved IE so much over the years.
If I had predicted all these things three years ago, you guys would have crucified me. Simply. A healthier relationship between Apple and Microsoft seemed so impossible. Ditto for MS producing quality Mac software. Apple comes back and sees its stock rise as high as 150? Whoa man, that Munger guy would have been NUTS to predict any of this.
Yet, all of this happened. It is indeed amazing how unpredictable life can be.
One day, you are down enough that you figure you will never be yourself again. A few years later, you realize that you survived the crisis and grew stronger.
One day, you (Apple) hate someone (MS) and think to yourself that you will never never EVER deal with him, if only for principles. A few years later, you celebrate your partnership with him and realize that this whole conflict between you was just a misunderstanding after all. If not, then you chose the path of a deal to serve your interests better and it worked in an alliance of reason.
They say that, in the computer industry, a year seems like an eternity. Comparing the platform's situation from 1997 to now... 3 years seem like a lifetime!
What does this world of change prepare for us? What is in store for Apple and the Mac platform? I do think that change will continue to take place at a faster pace.
Can the platform burst out of its niche market and gain a bigger chunk of the sales? It would be nice but surprising. While the platform's market share is small, Apple's share is big. Big because it is only ONE company that holds it. The PC platform unites so many manufacturers and only a handful of them holds as much market as Apple.
That said, I have the impression that Apple has a bright future ahead, unless something bad happens. With Steve Jobs secured as the permanent CEO, you can bet that Apple's management team will remain solid. This is an important condition for the company to keep its act together.
There is probably a limit to what the iMac and the iBook can do, but there are fewer limits to what companies like Apple are able to accomplish with imagination... the last three years of Mac computing stand as witnesses.