Very few people get the chance to make history. Even fewer get the chance to make it twice. Perhaps that is why it is so fascinating to watch Steve Jobs as he tries to usher in the era of mobile touch computing today, just as he ushered in the era of the personal computer three decades ago. But I wonder whether he is repeating the very same mistakes which relegated Macs to a niche market. Or did he learn from those mistakes so that Apple (AAPL) comes out on top this time?
Jobs is once again pitting Apple’s complete product design mastery against the rest of the industry, except this time he thinks he will prevail. Whether it is his repeated moves to keep Adobe’s Flash off the iPhone or his growing rift with Google (GOOG) over Android, Jobs is making the iPhone and iPad a relatively closed system that Apple can control. All apps need to be approved by Apple, the ads shown on the apps will also start to go through Apple, and no matter how hard Adobe tries to open up the iPhone to its Flash developers Apple will keep blocking all its efforts.
Developers and pundits can cry foul all they want about Apple’s lack of openness. But remember, companies are only open when it is convenient for them. The fight with Adobe has always been about making developers play by Apple’s rules. And right now they can make those rules because they have all the customers.
In the desktop era, Windows had the most apps, which translated directly into sales. Today on mobile, the iPhone has the most apps and Jobs wants to keep it that way. Allowing Adobe (ADBE) or Microsoft (MSFT) to port apps developed for other devices to the iPhone devalues the iPhone, which is why Apple is cracking down so hard on Adobe. It is not about Flash, it is about developers. As John Gruber writes:
The App Store platform could turn into a long-term de facto standard platform. That’s how Microsoft became Microsoft. At a certain point developers wrote apps for Windows because so many users were on Windows and users bought Windows PCs because all the software was being written for Windows. That’s the sort of situation that creates a license to print money.
But how long will that license last? The iPhone faces a growing threat from Google’s Android phones, which are the PCs of the mobile world. Only Apple makes the iPhone, but many phone manufacturers make Android phones just like many PC makers produce Windows PCs. Slowly but surely, those Android phones are getting better. And already Android sales are collectively catching up to iPhone sales.
Of all people, surely he sees what is coming. Is he ignoring his own history, or does he know it so well that this time he is going to try to rewrite it by changing the outcome? As long as the iPhone remains the leading smartphone, he can try to lock out Google’s ads and lock in developers with their apps (and, by extension, customers who want those apps).
Still, it seems like history could repeat itself, with the rest of the industry closing the innovation gap with Apple fast. With Google subsidizing the mobile OS, other phone manufacturers have an economic advantage as well. Jobs is trying everything he can to hold back the Android advance, including suing HTC, the largest manufacturer of Android phones. He is fighting Google with everything he’s got—undercutting Google’s pending acquisition of AdMob by entering the mobile advertising market and creating fear among Android partners with his patent lawsuit.
In the end, it is the victors who write history. Right now, Jobs is winning. Can he keep winning or is history against him?