Jeff Gelles: Web is entering adulthood

Gadgets and the software to run on them are continuously morphing.

Posted: October 26, 2012

In people years, the World Wide Web is barely 21. In technology time, it sometimes seems like eons since the first website went online in 1991, as the personal computer has morphed into increasingly powerful desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets.

Innovations, companies and devices have come and gone in the years since - which makes it all the more remarkable that we're focused this week on announcements by Apple and Microsoft, two players there at the start thanks to their pre-Web origins.

On Tuesday, Apple announced not only its long-rumored iPad Mini but upgrades across its lineup: a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with a pixel-packed Retina display; a faster, fourth-generation iPad, and an ultra-thin new iMac desktop, the latest successor to 1984's original Mac. The iMac features an innovative "Fusion Drive" that marries superfast flash memory with a traditional hard drive.

But on Thursday and in the days ahead, the spotlight will turn to Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., behemoth will be in New York on Thursday to launch its latest operating system, Windows 8, and to unveil its long-awaited hybrid tablet, the Surface, which it hopes will compete with the iPad.

Based on the continuously updating icons that Microsoft calls Live Tiles, Windows 8 is the first version of Windows designed to work with devices of any size - from PC to tablet to smartphone. Microsoft will then launch its mobile version, Windows Phone 8, at an event set for Monday in San Francisco.

Old tech heads will remember that Microsoft has long been chasing Apple. The first version of Windows even prompted a lawsuit, mostly unsuccessful, claiming that Microsoft had stolen Apple's "desktop" metaphor when it designed its own graphical user interface, the innovation that freed computer users from running their machines by typing commands.

It's too soon to tell whether Windows 8 will herald a resurgence for Microsoft, which still lags far behind Apple in mobile devices. Early reviews have been mixed. But, as if to emphasize that it's going all-in on its new approach, Microsoft is touting the Surface - which has been available for preorder since mid-month - as a key part of Thursday's presentation.

Two versions of the Surface have already been announced, though so far only one has a price tag: starting at $499 for a 32-gigabyte version running on Windows RT, a Live Tiles-based operating system designed specifically for tablets and computers using low-power ARM-style microprocessors. But both that version and one running Windows 8 Pro feature much of the same basic design, including an optional cover that doubles as a flat keyboard and that can add $100 to $130 to the Surface RT’s price.

Apple and Microsoft's latest fight for attention highlights what Forrester Research's Charles Golvin calls the "battle of ecosystems": a clash of companies - or alliances among companies - offering devices and services that draw value from their interactions with one another. In other words, a system where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Apple is the obvious example. Its initial success came as a high-end niche player that made both computers and their software - exerting a level of control that annoyed some techies but also helped avoid problems linked to Microsoft's more open architecture, such as malware and conflicts between hardware and software.

Since 2007's introduction of the iPhone, and culminating in last year's release of iCloud, Apple has developed a complex ecosystem that links its smartphones, tablets and computers with cloud-based storage, iTunes media, and the power of more than 700,000 applications in its App Store.

So far, Microsoft has struggled to put together the pieces of a competing ecosystem - remember the Zune music player? But with Windows 8, the Surface, and new HTC and Nokia smartphones built on Windows Phone 8, it's trying again. It's also trying to build on one of its rare recent successes, the Xbox gaming system, by launching Xbox Music as its new media platform.

Golvin says some competing ecosystems are more focused, such as Amazon's mix of books, shopping, music, TV and movies, all offered through its website and delivered on its Kindle e-readers and Kindle Fire tablets. Barnes & Noble's, based on its Nook line of tablets and its cloud-based library of books and other media, is even more narrowly targeted.

Competition also comes from Google, with its various cloud and Internet services and its support for smartphones using its Android operating system.

But Golvin says the goal of each ecosystem is the same: to capture users and their dollars. He says customers invest in various ways in a chosen system - not just by spending money on devices, but in other ways, too, such as by embracing a particular platform to store and share photos, music or documents.

In each case, the goal is to create "a gravitational field of loyalty so powerful that few customers will ever attain escape velocity," Golvin says.

Right now, Apple has a big head-start. But who knows? The Web is still young.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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