There's been quite a bit of talk over the past few days regarding the factors that led to Windows absolutely crushing the Mac in the 1990's and Apple's subsequent resurgence under the helm of Steve Jobs.
While there are a number of factors to consider, not the least of which is the fact that Windows 95 really bridged the gulf between Windows and the Mac OS by leaps and bounds, Michael Arrington astutely points out that the rise of the Internet played a huge role in getting Apple back into the mix.
Arrington writes that "before the Internet all most people cared about was Office." I'd like to make that a bit broader and note that before the Internet, all people really cared about was software. It just so happened at the time that Office was the be all and end all for many.
Indeed, any Mac fan who grew up in the early-to-mid 90s knows that a common refrain from Windows enthusiasts was that the Mac sucked because there was no software for it. In response, Mac fans would typically point out the innumerable number of titles available on both platforms while dismissively stating something to the effect of, "Sure, software like Dental Assistant 2.3 may be Windows only, but who really cares about that?"
All that said, there's no getting around the fact that Steve Jobs securing a 5-year deal with Microsoft to provide versions of Office for the Mac played a huge and integral role in keeping Apple afloat.
But once the Internet hit the mainstream (thank you AOL), the entire purpose of the personal computer was expanded in a fundamental way, if not completely reborn.
I myself remember this shift quite well. As a teenager with my trusty Mac in the early-mid 90's, I was preoccupied with games like Glider, Prime Target, Playmaker Football, and a handful of graphic and music apps that were fun to play around with. And, like Arrington, I also remember the frustration that accompanied transferring files back and forth between PCs and Macs. Anyone out there remember PC Exchange?
But once the Internet came around and hit the mainstream, things changed instantly. There was an entire new world of information to explore, websites to create, and worlds of people to talk to. In what seemed like an instant, Microsoft forever lost one of its long held advantages. Ironically, it's now Apple that has the software advantage over Microsoft, albeit in the mobile space.
But back to the Internet. These days, it's not uncommon to hear someone ask, "What type of computer should I get?" only to have them follow up with, "I only plan on using it to check email and browse the web."
So as important as Office was in 1997, what really changed the game for Apple was the Internet. Accessed via the most important virtual machine/operating system in our lifetimes, the browser, it completely leveled the playing field.
Suddenly computers weren’t entirely about Office, they were now about Office and the Internet. Mac had only a slightly hobbled version of Office, and they had a peachy Internet experience. As the Internet matured and browsers became better the “problems” lessened significantly. A half decade ago Office became unimportant enough, and compatibility was good enough between Mac and Windows, that it became a non issue entirely.
What's really remarkable, though, is that Steve Jobs was keenly aware of this in 1996, back when Microsoft's Windows was still the be all and all of computing.
During an interview with Wired, Steve Jobs bemoaned the lack of innovation coming out of Microsoft while declaring, yet again, that the desktop war between Apple and Microsoft was over, and that Microsoft had won.
The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.
But Jobs wasn't hopeless, necessarily. When asked about the Internet, Jobs explained:
The Web is an incredible democratizer. A small company can look as large as a big company and be as accessible as a big company on the Web. Big companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars building their distribution channels. And the Web is going to completely neutralize that advantage.
And because it changed the fundamental way people used computers in the first place, the Web also neutralized Microsoft's long-held advantage over the Mac, namely that folks primarily used computers for word processing and other software-oriented functions that required tangible media and a specific OS.