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March 26, 2008

An Interesting Argument/Observation [10:04 am]

Wired looks at the Apple management culture, and reads some tea leaves about the future of the internetworked world: How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong

For all the protests, consumers don’t seem to mind Apple’s walled garden. In fact, they’re clamoring to get in. Yes, the iPod hardware and the iTunes software are inextricably linked — that’s why they work so well together. And now, PC-based iPod users, impressed with the experience, have started converting to Macs, further investing themselves in the Apple ecosystem.

Some Apple competitors have tried to emulate its tactics. Microsoft’s MP3 strategy used to be like its mobile strategy — license its software to (almost) all comers. Not any more: The operating system for Microsoft’s Zune player is designed uniquely for the device, mimicking the iPod’s vertical integration. Amazon’s Kindle e-reader provides seamless access to a proprietary selection of downloadable books, much as the iTunes Music Store provides direct access to an Apple-curated storefront. And the Nintendo Wii, the Sony PlayStation 3, and the Xbox360 each offer users access to self-contained online marketplaces for downloading games and special features.

Tim O’Reilly, publisher of the O’Reilly Radar blog and an organizer of the Web 2.0 Summit, says that these “three-tiered systems” — that blend hardware, installed software, and proprietary Web applications — represent the future of the Net. As consumers increasingly access the Web using scaled-down appliances like mobile phones and Kindle readers, they will demand applications that are tailored to work with those devices. True, such systems could theoretically be open, with any developer allowed to throw its own applications and services into the mix. But for now, the best three-tier systems are closed. And Apple, O’Reilly says, is the only company that “really understands how to build apps for a three-tiered system.”

If Apple represents the shiny, happy future of the tech industry, it also looks a lot like our cat-o’-nine-tails past. In part, that’s because the tech business itself more and more resembles an old-line consumer industry. When hardware and software makers were focused on winning business clients, price and interoperability were more important than the user experience. But now that consumers make up the most profitable market segment, usability and design have become priorities. Customers expect a reliable and intuitive experience — just like they do with any other consumer product.

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