Friday, February 12, 2010

Making platform friends and enemies

This morning I was struck by how Apple, Google and Adobe are making more enemies while IBM and Microsoft are making more friends.

This was prompted by reading an article from Thursday’s WSJ, which rehashed last week’s story of Apple diss’ing Flash with its iPhone and now its iPad. The article reminded me that 25 years ago — in another millennium — Apple and Adobe were key strategic allies. As a Mac software developer, I recall how Apple saved Adobe when in 1985 (unlike HP) it used PostScript in its laser printers.

In the early 90s, when I (unsuccessfully) interviewed for a job managing Adobe’s Mac application group for my friend Eric Zocher, Photoshop was the engine of growth both for Adobe and Apple’s efforts to find new reasons to prefer the Mac over Windoze. Adobe was also talking about Carousel and the new PDF file format — and since 2001 native PDF file support has been a key feature of Mac OS X.

However, when Apple got into video editing applications, Adobe pulled resources from Mac updates to is Premier video editing program. Meanwhile, Adobe’s Flash-everywhere strategy (based on acquiring the company that acquired the startup that created Flash in 1996) has gone over about as well with Apple as Sun’s Java-everywhere strategy did a decade earlier with Microsoft.

Similarly, Google has had Apple as a frenemy for several years, While both dream of eventually replacing Flash with HTML5, things otherwise seem less friendly by the month as Google as chosen to compete with Apple’s browser, OS and smartphones.

Google was once a friend to the Mozilla Foundation, as its search payments and other resources have fueled the recent explosive growth of Mozilla paid staff. However, the Google Chrome browser have strained relationships and raise questions about future cooperation.

The common thread seems to be twofold. First, as the size and revenues of firms grow, they enter new markets and forward and/or backward integrate — both to provide new revenues and control their own destiny. Second, success provides brings market power and also an arrogance in which go-it-alone supplants previously cooperative attitudes.

This seems to apply to enterprise technologies as well, as growth and success strain previous alliances. When Java got hot, Sun asserted unilateral control, pissing off HP and IBM, its two natural allies in any anti-Microsoft coalition.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is in a relative (if not absolute) decline in its market power, and so alliances that previously would have been unheard of are now the norm. Now that Microsoft’s failure to mobile market appears irreversible, both Nokia and Apple smartphones use Microsoft’s enterprise mail server technology rather than the BlackBerry from their mutual rival.

Nokia is also getting Microsoft Office on its phones, perhaps something neither would have thought possible in 1998 when Nokia co-founded Symbian to prevent Microsoft from taking over mobile phones.

And of course IBM’s transformation in the 1990s under Lou Gerstner into an open partner is now old news. People now forget how suspicious rivals were when IBM created Eclipse in 2001. Now it’s the role model for open source openness by an IT firm, something Nokia’s deliberately emulated with its Symbian Foundation and perhaps someday Google might eventually approach.

So my axiom for IT vendor arrogance is essentially the same story as that for Hollywood actors presented 50+ years ago in A Star is Born. Market climbers seek friends on the way up, discard them as they near the peak of their power and influence, and then desperately scramble to repair and build new friendships on the way down.

Instead of Orson Welles crying out for his sled, I’d love to see James Mason play Eric Schmidt or Steve Jobs in the twilight of their careers, trying to get Hollywood or Silicon Valley to return their calls. If they’re lucky, the two fiftysomething tech moguls will be able to retire on top — like Tom Watson Sr. and Jr. or Paul and Bob Galvin — and leave the unpleasantry of managing the inevitable decline to their respective successors.

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