Conformity is a powerful instinct. There’s safety in numbers. You have to be different to be better, but different is scary.
So of course there’s some degree of herd mentality in every industry. But I think it’s more pronounced, to a pathological degree, in the PC hardware industry. It was at the root of long-standing punditry holding that Apple should license the Mac OS to other PC makers, or that Apple should dump Mac OS and make Windows PCs. On the surface, those two old canards seem contradictory — one arguing that Apple should be a hardware company, the other arguing that it should be a software company. But at their root they’re the same argument: that Apple should stop being different, and either act just like other PC makers (and sell computers running Windows) or else act just like Microsoft (and sell licenses to its OS).
No one argues those two points any more. But it’s the same herd mentality that led to the rash of Apple needs to get in the “netbook” game punditry that I claim-checked earlier this week. I could have linked to a dozen others. The argument, though, is the same: everyone else is making netbooks, so Apple should, too. Why? Because everyone else is.
I think there’s a simple reason why the herd mentality is worse in the PC industry: Microsoft. In fact, I think it used to be worse. A decade ago the entire computing industry — all facets of it — was dominated by a herd mentality that boiled down to Get behind Microsoft and follow their lead, or else you’ll get stomped. That’s no longer true in application software. The web, and Google in particular, have put an end to that.
But the one area where Microsoft still reigns supreme is in PC operating systems. PC hardware makers are crippled. They can’t stand apart from the herd even if they want to. Their OS choices are: (a) the same version of Windows that every other PC maker includes; or (b) the same open source Linux distributions that every other PC maker could include but which no customers want to buy.1
Apple’s ability to produce innovative hardware is inextricably intertwined with its ability to produce innovative software. The iPhone is an even better example than the Mac.
It’s not just that Apple is different among computer makers. It’s that Apple is the only one that even can be different, because it’s the only one that has its own OS. Part of the industry-wide herd mentality is an assumption that no one else can make a computer OS — that anyone can make a computer but only Microsoft can make an OS. It should be embarrassing to companies like Dell and Sony, with deep pockets and strong brand names, that they’re stuck selling computers with the same copy of Windows installed as the no-name brands.
And then there’s HP, a company with one of the best names and proudest histories in the industry. Apple made news this week for the design and tech specs of its all-new iMacs, which start at $1199. HP made news this week for unveiling a Windows 7 launch bundle at Best Buy that includes a desktop PC and two laptops, all for $1199. That might be great for Microsoft, but how is it good for HP that their brand now stands for bargain basement prices?
Operating systems aren’t mere components like RAM or CPUs; they’re the single most important part of the computing experience. Other than Apple, there’s not a single PC maker that controls the most important aspect of its computers. Imagine how much better the industry would be if there were more than one computer maker trying to move the state of the art forward.
And, perhaps soon, the same version of Google Chrome OS that’s available to every other PC maker. Chrome OS might help PC makers break free of Microsoft, but it won’t help them break free from each other. ↩