iPhone: Apple’s cross-platform innovation dilemma

There are two mainstream operating systems in the world and they don’t quite care for each other. While Microsoft can copy Apple and afford to ignore it when strategically advantageous, Apple’s problem is of a different sort.

Apple is on a different trajectory of innovation. Having a fraction of Microsoft’s userbase, Apple must out-innovate to survive. Its product pipeline depends on ‘blockbuster’ hits, like the iPod and the iPhone. Being as good as or just incrementally better than the competition is just not enough.

Collection vs. integration

The superior user experience of Apple’s products is the result of tight integration of hardware, software and services. To a casual user the iPod is a cute and useful gadget. To Apple, it’s a careful orchestration of many intertwined factors:


If we were to take away a few of these interlocking factors, the 110-million strong iPod would no longer be an iPod, it would be just another moribund “iPod killer.”


Apple is the only major company that’s both horizontally and vertically integrated: Microsoft doesn’t do much hardware; Motorola, Nokia, Sony or Samsung don’t own operating systems. A typical not-the-iPod media player, for example, depends on critical licensing from many other companies:


Rate of innovation

Unfortunately, each one of these varied companies has a different rate of innovation and likely a different business model. For example, Microsoft first thought that it could lick the iPod/iTunes threat by getting an army of partners to license its PlaysForSure DRM so that others could build the hardware around Microsoft’s software foundation. What worked in the PC business didn’t against Apple’s tightly integrated, single-company platform capable of pursuing a very aggressive innovation path.

Within three years, Microsoft had to change course completely, abandon PlaysForSure and compete against its former ‘partners’ by introducing its own hardware, incompatible DRM and download service. Those MP3 player manufacturers beholden to Microsoft’s rate of innovation saw, in turn, their market growth potential collapse. This is a classic build-or-buy dilemma faced by all enterprises when they have to make strategic product decisions: can you let other companies control the rate of innovation of your own products?

For Apple the iPhone is the product, perhaps more than any other, that brings this question into focus. The iPhone is cross-platform from its inception. Like the iPod, its principal conduit to the rest of the computing and communications universe is iTunes.

While many media players and phones have their management smarts and content creation tools built in, the iPhone needs iTunes like an umbilical cord. From a design point of view this makes the device easier to use, simpler to manage and cheaper to produce. It also gives Apple a great deal of control over software/firmware updates, security, monetization and interfacing with other applications on users’ desktop machines. And therein lies the problem: the majority of iPhone users are on Windows.

A lot of innovative integration Apple could create between the iPhone and its desktop universe can’t be implemented on the iPhone simply because of what’s not available to Windows users. While QuickTime, iTunes and Safari are cross-platform, many applications that could provide exciting opportunities for iPhone integration like iChat, Keynote, Mail or iPhoto are not.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping


We saw a small example of this limitation this week at the introduction of Leopard. Some people assumed that the iPhone Notes application would directly ‘synchronize’ with the Notes capability of the new Mail app. Unfortunately, as there’s no Mail app on Windows, that one-way integration is done through platform-neutral IMAP emails, as John Gruber explains. Otherwise, Apple would have to rely on Microsoft’s Outlook for notes synchronization, but cannot mitigate the discrepancy of user experience between iPhone, Outlook and Mail presentations of notes. That is the beginning of a slippery slope, especially for a company that didn’t want to rely on Musicmatch Jukebox app to manage iPods on Windows not too long ago.

The dilemma for Apple here is: should it index iPhone’s rate of innovation to what’s available on Windows or port currently Mac-only technologies to Windows as it has to provide an equal measure of user experience to all iPhone users?

From my conversations with Apple folk, I think there was a lot of trepidation with cross-platform migration starting with QuickTime in 1994, continuing through the decision to introduce iTunes on Windows in 2003, and finally to current discussions on iSync and Core Animation.

Where do you draw the line?

If Apple migrates too many critical apps and frameworks to Windows to make its cross-platform devices platform-neutral, will it be able to maintain sufficient differentiating advantage over Windows for the rest of its desktop business? And if it keeps some of its innovations Mac-only will that hold back its ability to out-innovate its numerous and well-funded competitors for cross-platform devices?

Do you see any Mac technologies going on a Windows expedition anytime soon?

14 thoughts on “iPhone: Apple’s cross-platform innovation dilemma

  1. Trick Q: Oddly enough these reasons are already present for Windows people to switch without the apps ported. The switching rate has so far been a trickle not a gush, which tells me that other factors are at play here.

  2. “If Apple ported a near-full spectrum of its apps to Windows, the inevitable questions arises: why would a Windows user switch to Mac?”


    My Top 10: You’re welcome to post yours.)

    10 – Rate of Innovation
    9 – Incredible gadget/Mac design
    8 – Great Security
    7 – Great Reliability
    6 – Genius Bar
    5 – 1 to 1 program
    4 – Apple Store Employees (Actually knowledgeable and helpful)
    3 – Speaks Softly and Invents the Future
    2 – Corporate Integrity
    1 – No Zunes!

  3. Todd, if Apple ported a near-full spectrum of its apps to Windows, the inevitable questions arises: why would a Windows user switch to Mac?

    Remember, in the mid-90s a ton of Mac users switched to Win NT to a large extent because some of the key apps they needed were not being written or expeditiously updated for the Mac, not because Win NT was better for the the things that make up the Mac experience.

    Obviously, there is a thin line somewhere, but I’m not sure where.

  4. It’s possible that porting additional Mac OS apps and tech over to Windows could be advantageous for Apple in just the same way that iTunes has been. Remember, it’s the iPod/iTunes combo that Windows users are exposed to when they buy an iPod. The difference in the iTunes application sticks out like a sore thumb on any PC when you compare it to a lot of Windows software. Additional examples like that Mail could be another reason for a Windows user to head into the Apple Store to see what the full Apple experience is like.

  5. So far, the decisions Jobs and Apple have made have served Apple well; I think of iTunes, Bootcamp, and the Intel transition. It’s easier for people to move to OS X if they have tried Apple applications on their Windows machine. Most vendors develop software OR hardware OR services. What Apple has done so brilliantly is to combine all three in a way seldom seen before. What others talk about Apple do. I know of no other company that listens so attentively to its customers, although they don’t want to talk that much to the media. I still think Jobs is a kind of anti-establishment rebel at heart.

  6. “Peter, you’re right that this is routine in the industry, but Apple doesn’t quite follow the ‘norm”

    People always hold Apple to a super-high standard. Having lots of enthusiasts — and PAID detractors (Thurott, etc)– carries a price.

  7. Peter, you’re right that this is routine in the industry, but Apple doesn’t quite follow the ‘norm.’ For instance, Apple could have made Bonjour exclusive to Macs but they did port it to Windows in preparation for easy device/app sharing. Apple moved to USB because FireWire wasn’t as common on the Wintel platform, even though FW was the better choice on Macs. They introduced iTunes on Windows because Musicmatch was inferior, etc. So after nearly a decade of such policy, Apple users have come to expect parity in user experience. While this may not be absolute, it is nevertheless the first choice for Apple.

  8. “I’m sure they could. I think it would piss-off too many people.”

    I’m not convinced. Many other consumer devices work the same way. For example, I can attach my HP camera to my HP printer and it will print the photos directly from the camera. I can do the same thing with my Canon. However, I cannot do this with my Olympus camera. I also can’t print photos directly from my Canon camera to my HP printer.

  9. “Couldn’t they provide a “basic” iPhone experience to Windows users, and a “+” iPhone experience to Mac users ?”

    I’m sure they could. I think it would piss-off too many people.

  10. Couldn’t they provide a “basic” iPhone experience to Windows users, and a “+” iPhone experience to Mac users ? iTunes should be able to tell the iPhone wether it’s connected to Windows or to OSX, and provide extra services to those on a Mac.
    It would create 2 categories of iPhone users, and this is possibly something that could hurt the iPhone image, with the cool guys on one side and the so so ones on another (pretty much what were the ads). My guess is that to stay strong, attractive and graspable to everyone, the iPhone experience has to stay unique.
    In another hand, it could be an incentive to switch.

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  12. There’s no doubt; the huge number of people still hanging on to Windows slows the rate of innovation in the industry quite a bit.

    Another part of the overall equation is the Web. Many web designers still feel obligated to tune their web sites so they “work” on Internet Explorer. But MSFT doesn’t feel particularly obligated to tune IE to get it into compliance with all aspects of, for example, cascading Style Sheets. Hopefully, the iPhone and Safari for Windows will show people there are superior alternatives THAT ARE EASY TO INSTALL and are SUPPORTED BY A BIG COMPANY (I think Firefox adoption would be higher if it were not Open Source. Firefox is a fine browser– better than Safari in some ways, IMO)

  13. As you said, it’s a slippery slope if you begin porting your bread & butter over to Windows, I’m not sure if Apple wants to go there. As people understand that in order to use iLife or Aperture or Final Cut you need a Mac, I think they’ll understand that certain functionalities in the iPhone will require a Mac as well.
    The question is, is Apple willing to sell their soul and jeopardize the Mac platform in order to make the iPhone a universal device. If they are satisfied with the 1% market target they have expressed, then I don’t think it will be a major issue. But if this thing really takes off, they may have some decisions to make.

  14. The main point –IMO– is to keep the “user experience” as Apple wants it to be: if the iPod/iPhone experience “requires” some more apps to be ported, they would port it or ally with others to do that (I think on Google’s Picassa in place of iPhoto, by example).
    Apple will keep always innovating, because this is its DNA.

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