Hardware

Microsoft and Google may not like it but they're marching to Apple's drumbeat

Every so often a force appears in technology that carries all before it. For the moment, Apple is just such a phenomenon.

The launch of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display underlines Apple's approach to the past and future and its influence on competitors. Photo: Sarah Tew/CNET

A week before Microsoft flipped its world on its head with the Surface tablet announcement, Apple was turning back the clock with its new MacBook Pro. Really, has there ever been a more interesting time to be involved in technology?

The PC isn't dead but the desktop's health is in a perilous state. Desktop manufacturers are struggling, and even HP - the world's biggest - has had wobbles about its strategy and future.

Conventional wisdom has Apple moving inexorably towards its post-PC world. Apple product announcements have become a bit predictable in recent years. Macs get a couple of speed-bumps and some minor case evolution, while the world moves more towards iOS and mobility.

The more mobile the product the more it seems to evolve, iPhones, iPads and MacBook Airs change and grow and are celebrated. Meanwhile, a journey down the product line towards MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros and the changes were less apparent and in the case of the Mac Pro, stagnant.

Then out of the blue, the company comes up with a Mac so sexy it should come with a parental warning. I recently celebrated the rise of the iPad as an ascendant computing platform, but what a triumph for the traditional Mac fan base.

Apple's design and engineering investment

Just a few minutes with one of the new computers and you come to realise the design and engineering investment that has gone into creating it. A most unexpected celebration. A reinstatement of values. I've spent several lunchtimes in Apple Stores trying to discern pixels.

There was even good news for the mighty but venerable Mac Pro which got a sneaky but tiny update but a promise of much more from Apple's CEO. In response to an email, Tim Cook promised "something really great" for Mac Pro fans in 2013. Retina Display iMacs are rumoured, optimistically, for an October launch.

What made the launch of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display so interesting is that it demonstrates Apple's approach to both the past and future and the influence it is having on competitors.

Apple has long been described as an agenda-setting company. Now it's a company that forces other giant corporations to turn their businesses on their heads.

It's undeniable that the PC market is in a bad place at the moment. The PC is not a legacy product yet but few manufacturers are making money in a stagnant market. Ironically, the company taking most of that profit is Apple.

Yet at the same time, the company is leading the evolution of the post-PC world, certainly with tablet computing and to a large extent with smartphones.

Google and Microsoft

Google and Microsoft have both risked the ire of hardware partners by bringing out their own devices. That Microsoft in particular would risk a big diversion from its traditional strategy is a massive credit to the company and to its management team. It's also an acknowledgement that a risk may also be an opportunity.

It takes a major threat or a massive opportunity to turn your organisation on its head. Apple is a truly such a power and it has demonstrated that the market it's realised and is reaping with its products is an opportunity worth betting the bank on.

Yet Apple is forcing their hands. Even relatively recently, it would be unremarkable to hear Steve Ballmer scoff at Apple. Now imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: its traditional partners aren't up to the job.

Likewise with Google: if you want something done, it seems to have decided, do it yourself with its Nexus products - and what good products they are.

In 2006, Palm CEO said ahead of the then-rumoured iPhone launch into the traditional mobile market: "PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in."

They did and they have. Now, Apple leads the way in the post-PC world and leads the profits and innovation in the PC world.

End-to-end user experience

The PC guys are hanging onto the coat tails of the Cupertino giant as it ploughs on to new markets. The race is on to create the best hardware, the best tablet user experience, the best platform and the best ecosystem - the end-to-end user experience model that Apple has championed.

In 15 years of covering the tech industry I can't think of a time when one company is causing such an impact across so many segments of the market.

Yet at the same time as it defines and then dominates new markets, it also breathes fresh life into older ones, with the Mac in a better state than it has ever been. Recent announcements have put the Mac back on the roadmap for the next 10 years.

Apple has feet in the past and the future and right now seems to be in complete control of both.

Editor's Picks