Apple Mobile Replay of 1980s/90s PC Wars?

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Apple was the king of the personal computer revolution. While there were other players out there like IBM, everybody knew that Apple was more innovative and cool. The famous 1984 SuperBowl commercial set the tone for Apple from that point to the present:

The message was clear, Apple was the non-conformist choice.

Unfortunately, IBM let the Microsoft genie escape from the bottle and spawned a whole PC-clone industry. Competition and the rise of “Taiwan, Inc.,” ravaged Apple through the late 1990s. At some point, those cheap PC clones look pretty attractive, particularly when the target user is a business person and the products are produced by some of the largest and most stable companies in the world. Steve Jobs left Apple and the company was drifting, almost rudderless, drowning in a sea of PC-clones and red ink, with market share numbers you could count on one hand. The 1980s mojo was gone.

Finally, the Apple board engineered an honorable return for Steve Jobs and the company got its groove back. We saw a resurgence led by fruit-colored Macs and a new operating system based on Jobs’ work at Next. Finally, we saw a dramatic shift for Apple from a computer company to a consumer products company that happened to sell computers as one of its products. The iPod led this shift, followed soon by the iPhone and lastly the iPad. Apple mobile products were the company’s future.

Time and time again, Apple broke with the status quo and taught the rest of the industry where it needed to go. But competitors are on the rise in mobile, too. Thus far, Apple’s smart phone market share is holding relatively steady, and even growing to #2, but it’s now a minority player (albeit a large minority) in the market it pioneered. TechCrunch spins the recent share uptick positively:

For the first time in the history of comScore’s MobiLens U.S. mobile market share report, Apple has come in second overall among handset OEMs. Apple grew its U.S. market share by 1.5 percentage points from 16.3 to 17.8 percent in the three-month period ending October 2012, according to the report. During the same period, Samsung also saw its share grow, but only by 0.7 percentage points, from 25.6 to 26.3 percent. Apple seems to have begun narrowing the gap on the back of the iPhone 5, which went on sale in the U.S. towards the middle of the period covered by comScore’s latest report.

But, if you look at the list of top players, they’re all using Android but for Apple:

  1. Samsung: 26.3%
  2. Apple: 17.8%
  3. LG: 17.6%
  4. Motorola: 11%
  5. HTC: 6%

It’s hard to think that we aren’t seeing a replay of the 1980s/90s PC Wars all over again, this time in mobile. Instead of IBM and Microsoft playing the role of the villan, however, we have Google Android running on cheap Korean and Chinese hardware.

Apple has shown itself as nothing if not resilient, a consistent innovation dynamo over the long term. But it’s going to have its work cut out for it. The latest versions of a Android are very capable and Apple’s debacle with mapping technology on the iPhone 5 has hurt its credibility with most loyal fans. Apple needs to take concerted steps to ensure that it doesn’t lose its mojo the same way it did in the 1990s, particularly with Steve Jobs gone for good. Is the company up for it? That remains unclear, but fortunately, it has been at this crossroads before and it knows the path it doesn’t want to take.

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