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Apple picks a fight it can't win

June 14, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Windows users are forced to use iTunes if they want to play their iPods, which, like everyone else, they do. But it's a painful, time-consuming and irritating experience for many who are used to largely standardized Windows conventions of button, bar and menu placement and functionality.

Apple gets away with its our-way-or-the-highway UI design with QuickTime because controls beyond the standard VCR "Play," "Pause," "Stop," "Fast-forward," etc., are unnecessary and therefore absent.

But on a browser, Apple will need to do things the Windows way or get eaten alive.

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer dominates browser market share, Apple's real competition is Firefox, which most active and advanced users love and which is the other major browser not bundled with Windows. Most people inclined to install a second or replacement browser on Windows have already done so, and most have installed Firefox.

Firefox fans are small in number compared with Internet Explorer users, but they're a passionate, enthusiastic and vocal crowd. It's these Firefox users that Apple will find at the entrance of the Windows browser market, with swords and shields at the ready.

Mozilla has taken a play out of Microsoft's own playbook by making Firefox almost fully compatible with a World Wide Web largely designed to work on IE. Rather than fighting and resisting these de facto standards, it has embraced and even improved upon them.

Will Apple follow this winning formula? The beta suggests it may not.

Apple will need to approach Windows UI with humility -- a rare commodity at Apple -- and do things the Microsoft way, or pay the price in market share.

Why pick a fight now?

Some analysts are suggesting, and I tend to agree with them, that a primary motive for entering the browser fight this late in the game has little to do with browsers and everything to do with iPhones.

Jobs announced Monday that the iPhone would support third-party applications only in the form of Internet-based browser applications. And guess which browser runs on the iPhone? Apple no doubt wants to provide additional incentive to software developers to build sites and applications that support Safari.

See how Apple "thinks different" about these things?

Rather than providing iPhone users with the existing universe of largely IE-optimized applications and sites in a browser that supports existing standards, and telling iPhone application developers to just go ahead and build universally compatible apps that will also run on the iPhone, Apple feels the overpowering need to once again build and control a new, proprietary playing field.

This is the problem with Apple's plan: To control the user experience of third-party apps on the iPhone, Apple needs to control a quasi-proprietary browser platform. To get developers to build for the browser, Apple needs the power of market share. To get market share, Apple needs Windows compatibility and Windows-user acceptance. And -- here's where the logic fails -- to get a critical mass of Windows users, Safari needs to embrace existing Web standards, UI conventions and functionality.



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