Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft: Battle for digital supremacy

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Paul Griffin, whose accessory business thrived as he rode the slipstream of the company's success, told me he thought the outcome was, in time, assured:

If you look at the bigger picture, I think that Jobs has had it right all along. Controlling both the hardware and the software has turned out to be the better model than someone who just did the software and let everyone build hardware. If you do that, you end up with a lot of products that just don't all work together very well... I think Apple has done themselves a service by controlling both.

He pauses. "Certainly has worked out well for them." he said with a smile.

Yes, Jobs was a one-off; yet so much of what he did could be copied - if you had the will and the nerve to copy it. Barely anyone did. Receiving and answering customer e-mails directly (to know what the customer is thinking). Cutting out intermediaries. Focusing on the eventual user as the most important element in the chain. Throwing away preconceptions in order to embrace the new. Being unafraid to kill existing products to replace them with better ones before your rivals do. Stripping out what is unnecessary, and improving what is left to the best possible. Even before Jobs left, Apple had an enormous internal project, called the Apple University, to educate its staff in how the most effective traits of the company could be promulgated, refined and reproduced. Even without Jobs, his spirit would still live on inside the company. As John Gruber put it, as he pondered the Apple co-founder's goodbye, "Jobs's greatest creation isn't any Apple product. It is Apple itself."

On 5 October, Jobs's death was announced. Bill Gates was among the first to offer his condolences, and praise his long-time friend's legacy: "The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come. For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it's been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely." Page agreed: "He always seemed to be able to say in very few words what you actually should have been thinking before you thought it. His focus on the user experience above all else has always been an inspiration to me." Sergey Brin, too, felt the loss keenly: "From the earliest days of Google, whenever Larry and I sought inspiration for vision and leadership, we needed to look no farther than Cupertino."

For it was the visionary element that now looks so hard to reproduce. Once, after the introduction of yet another set of iPods, I asked Jobs whether he had been able to foresee how the market would develop -- from iTunes to the iPod to the Music Store. Most people couldn't get that sort of visibility over the technology horizon. Had it really been clear how they would follow from one another?

Schiller, beside him, gave a quick grin. Jobs gazed at me through his round glasses, his expression a mixture of patience and amusement. He smiled a little.

"Of course," he said, and then lifted his hands slightly, with the palms upturned. "Of course we did."

Steve Jobs always knew he could win. He just needed to find the right battlefield.

Charles Arthur is technology editor at the Guardian. An experienced science and technology journalist, he has also worked at the Independent and New Scientist. This article is excerpted from his new book, Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft & the Battle for the Internet, copyright 2012, published by Kogan Page. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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