A World Without Apple
By Seth Fiegerman - 07/19/11 - 11:23 AM EDT
Like it or not, Apple(:AAPL) and its visionary CEO Steve Jobs have remade the technology world -- and consumer culture as a whole -- to their liking. The company's fingerprints are on everything from the look and feel of computers and mobile devices to the way we use cellphones and shop for music.
Steve Jobs and Apple have remade tech and consumer culture as a whole. What if they had never existed?
"Apple's greatest influence is not that they invent technology," says Tim Bajarin, a technology columnist and principal analyst for Creative Strategies, a tech consulting group. "It's that they reinvent it."
As Bajarin points out, Apple can't claim to have created the original personal computer or smartphone or even the concept of the app store, but each of these products would look significantly different today without Apple's influence.
Here's how tech experts say the evolution of the personal technology market might have been different and what consumers might be shopping for today had Jobs and Steve Wozniak never founded Apple back in 1976:
Slower adoption of the personal computer
By now, it's a given that virtually every household in the country has at least one computer -- and probably more than that -- but the timeline of computer adoption might have been much different without Apple.
"Apple was the first company to commercialize a personal computer," Bajarin says, pointing to the release of the Apple II in 1978, which was geared more toward average consumers and was ready to use right out of the box. "What Apple did was to show that the market for PCs existed, which in turn got other companies like IBM to work on it."
That's not to say other organizations wouldn't have put out computers during this time, but the target audience would have been much different.
"Apple really catalyzed the entry of the computer into the consumer market," says Charles S. Golvin, an analyst at Forrester, a market research firm. Without Apple, Golvin speculates that computer manufacturers and software developers would have catered more toward small businesses and universities at that time.
As a result, some analysts suggest it could have taken an additional four or five years for personal computers to really catch on in households.
"Maybe you could argue that the average consumer would have two computers today instead of three without Apple, but PC adoption would still be just as widespread either way," Golvin says.
Worse product design
While we would probably have many of the same types of products on the market today even without Apple, their design would likely be much less consumer-friendly. Apple, more than any other tech company, puts the focus on building products that look beautiful and are easy to use, starting with those first computers it launched in the late 1970s.
"Steve Jobs was one of the few people to make the computer for ordinary people," says Leander Kahney, the author of several books on the company and editor of CultofMac.com, a technology blog. "Other companies would force you to use these horrific products designed by the worst kind of antisocial engineers."
Competitors' computers at the time were boxy, with straight edges and no color, save for a very sterile gray. It was Apple who injected some color and style into these machines.
"Apple was the first and is still one of the only companies to mix elegant industrial design with technology," Bajarin says. "The No. 1 thing that would be different today without products like the iPod is that we would not have devices that are as elegantly designed."
No digital music industry
Apple may not be a music company first and foremost, but it has had a tremendous impact on the industry nonetheless, particularly regarding digital music sales.
In the early 2000s, digital music was already taking off, thanks largely to such services as Napster and Kazaa, which gave consumers a way to download all the songs they wanted for free. Recognizing this shift away from analog, the industry scrambled to find ways to monetize digital music, eventually turning to Apple.
Apple had a portable music player (iPod) combined with well-designed software for buying and playing songs (iTunes) and gradually built partnerships with the major record labels to sell music. More than anything, this provided consumers with a fluid process from start to finish for buying digital music.
"Despite the fact that you hear squawking from the music industry about Apple's dominance, without Apple there would have been many different formats and many more incompatibility issues," Golvin says. "We probably would have had a much more robust piracy environment because we wouldn't have had a simple answer to buying digital songs."
Indeed, analysts say it's tough to imagine any company other than Apple having accomplished all this by 2011.
"No one else has been able to replicate that ecosystem of hardware, software and services," Kahney says. "Steve Jobs saved the digital music industry."
Smartphones with fewer apps and no touch screens
There were smartphones -- and even apps -- before Apple released the iPhone in 2007, but Apple completely changed consumers' expectations of both, and in turn, the selection of other phones on the market.
"There have been apps on phones for a long time, but with the iPhone and the App Store, they really changed the paradigm," Bajarin says. "Apple not only changed the way people saw what a phone can do, and the kinds of applications and experiences it could enable, but they also opened up a gigantic world for developers."
Without Apple, it's unlikely we would see phones on the market this year with thousands upon thousands of applications. If that's not bad enough, Kahney, the tech blogger, speculates that we might not even have smartphones with touch screens at this point were it not for Apple.
"Today, we would probably have things like the iPhone, but they would use styluses like the Palm Pilot," he says, and as a result, these devices would probably be less popular. "There would be a few nerds who would have them but they wouldn't be mass marketed."
Tablets were the hot gadget through 2010 and 2011, with dozens of different models hitting the market during that time, but without Apple and the iPad, tablets might not have caught on for several more years.
As Bajarin points out, tablets have been around in one form or another for about two decades. In fact, it was back in 2001 when Bill Gates held up a clunky tablet the size of a legal notepad and "half the weight of ... laptop PCs" and predicted it would be the most popular form of PC in America within five years. But it was only when Jobs debuted the iPad nine years later that consumers really took notice.
"All the tablets that I'd seen in the works were just replicating the original concept of Gates tablet PC of 2001," Bajarin says. "Had Apple not brought up the iPad, we would still be stumbling through the abyss of tablets that had been out for 20 years and were going nowhere."
Tech retail stores with poor customer service
Apple hasn't just influenced the kind of hardware and software tech companies put out; it has also fundamentally changed the nature of the tech retail store itself. In addition to being the first computer company with retail stores, Apple and its bricks-and-mortar stores are often praised for putting the emphasis on the customer experience, once largely unheard of for technology companies.
"Their competitors have had to rethink retail," Bajarin says. "Most stores put the computers on shelves and place all the burden on the consumer to figure out what to buy, but Apple completely flipped the role of the salesperson and the consumer."
Moreover, Golvin, the Forrester analyst, argues that Apple's technical support team, known as the Genius Bar, revolutionized the experience of getting tech advice by providing a more "comfortable environment."
Each of these analysts point to companies such as Best Buy(:BBY), Dell(:DELL) and Microsoft(:MSFT) that are in various stages of emulating this business model.
"Without the Apple stores and this new selling concept, we'd still be in the dark ages of computer retail," Bajarin says.
Winners and losers
Though consumers might lose out on some beloved gadgets in a world without Apple, several tech companies would likely be in a much stronger position today in that world, perhaps none more so than Sony(:SNY).
"Sony used to be seen as the pinnacle of quality in consumer electronics products and the innovator who would bring new and high-quality experiences to consumers," Golvin says, pointing to a long line of products including the CD, Walkman and Playstation. "But they have just been eviscerated in that position, largely by Apple."
Dell has not fared much better.
"Dell took a hit on anything they tried to do that was copying Apple," Bajarin says. "They tried to create something like the MacBook and that failed, and their first forays into tablets failed. Clearly they could have been in a better position if they were the ones trying to define the market around industrial design."
Another company analysts argue would have been worse off without Apple: Microsoft, which analysts argue benefited significantly from the personal computing market Apple helped create.