The Ecphorizer

Apple and IBM Redux
George Towner

Issue 03 (December 2004)

Woe to those who try to make predictions in the computer biz! Fifteen years ago, when I wrote “Apple and IBM” for The Ecphorizer, Microsoft was a cloud no larger than a man’s hand. Even in 1993, when I reprinted the article in a book, Microsoft was still just a successful software company, not the all-conquering behemoth it eventually became. Yet with a few name changes, much of what I wrote then applies today.

Yes, many computing jobs that were done by mainframes in 1987 are now done by desktop machines—but most of those smaller machines are made by Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and Sun, not by Apple. Yes, the user interface is still the key to success in personal computers, and IBM never became a leader in that area. But Microsoft cobbled together a workable user interface and covered the marketplace with it. Apple concentrated on technology, but it became destined to play catch-up in market share.

To be fair, Apple has maintained a lead in several markets, including education and serious graphic design. And it is now taking a front position in machines for handling digital media—music, pictures, and movies—which could be the Next Big Thing. The fact that most number-crunching is done today using Windows software and Intel chips (the “Wintel” combo) does not mean that Apple is irrelevant.

Were I to write a piece today titled “Apple and Microsoft,” I might say that the difference between the two companies is that Apple tends to use money to make technology, while Microsoft tends to use technology to make money. Apple doesn’t disdain money, but it is genetically programmed to put design first. The documents that emerged in Judge Jackson’s court a while ago indicate that the reverse is often the case at Microsoft.

Personally, I feel privileged to work at Apple. What I said in 1987 about their really caring for the personal computer user still holds. “Innovation” is often claimed in the computer biz, but at Apple it is truly applied to making computers easier to use, more powerful, and more fitted to human needs. I’m happy to tell my kids that I help make this happen. If some Wall Street analysts fault Apple for not concentrating on building a money machine, that’s OK with me. 

Contributor Profile

George Towner

George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.