How the iPod Ended the OS Wars

By Hadley Stern, Publisher of AppleMatters
February 20, 2004

Operating system (OS) wars go back to almost the very beginning of personal computing, and amazingly, they continue online and at water coolers across the world. Twenty years ago, it was Apple versus IBM, Commodore and Atari. Today, visit hard core computer news site Slashdot and you will see Linux people bashing Windows people bashing Mac people.


But these aren’t the days of DOS or command line prompts. It’s a simple fact that any machine running Windows or Mac OS X uses the same “windowing” interface, plus and minus a few features per platform. In any case, you drag things around a desktop to access and organize, throw them in the trash (or recycle bin) to delete, and within applications, What You See Is What You Get.

Sure, beneath the pretty graphical interface, the old command line prompt remains hidden – even the Mac has one now, after almost 20 years of doing without it – but most consumer machines these days behave alike. And amongst them, even PC fans will reluctantly admit that the Mac is the most elegant of the bunch, with nicer icons, a bulletproof environment, and best of all, no viruses or spyware.

Oops, there I go again! The OS wars. One tiny (truly mini these days) thing stops me in my rhetorical tracks and stumps me into silence. It’s not the patch of the week released by Windows, nor is it the latest horribly ugly desktop environment to come out of some kids basement for Linux. No, it’s that little thing in your pocket. The iPod.

Why? Because once and for all it has shattered the myth that you need a Mac to play well in the digital hub. Using either a Mac or a PC, you can transfer music to your iPod blisteringly fast, buy music from the Apple iTunes music store (heck, you can even run an Apple application on your PC – iTunes!), and share music between machines using Rendezvous. Thanks to the iPod, Apple is telling consumers that both from a hardware or software standpoint the PC can do everything a Mac can. (Sure, iPod use can be a little more troublesome on a PC. You may have to buy an extra cable, install some drivers, and cross your fingers, but the fact remains that you can use an iPod on either platform.)

So where does that leave the hardware and OS wars? Back when it was DOS versus the Mac, it was easy for Mac users to snicker at keyboard prompts. But now PC users use Photoshop, Quark, Flash, and all the programs that started out on the Mac. And Apple knows it. Suddenly the fight is not for the only machine on people’s desk, it is for the second or third machine they buy.

After trying “Switch” as a campaign to sell the Mac on its own merits, Apple is assuming that the iPod might serve as a gateway drug, demonstrating the company’s legendary ease of use and seducing Windows users into adding a Mac to the den instead of another PC.

There is still a possibility that this will work. But now with even Steve Jobs using a PC at Macworld SF 2004 (which was, in the history of computing, a very significant moment) Apple’s strategy could also fail. But from where I stand, Apple couldn’t ignore the potent reality in the marketplace. If Apple continued to market the iPod and iTunes to only the Macintosh audience it would have been a horrible business move and irresponsible to their stockholders.

Curiously, though, even as this little white and silver thing has started to turn PC users’ heads, it’s also muddied the waters: while PC users are looking at Apple, Apple is salivating over the 90 plus percent of the world using Windows machines, and even writing different applications for the competing platform. Recently Apple touted iChat’s interoperability with Windows machines. What’s next, iChat for PC’s? iMovie, iCal, iDVD, or, shudder, OS X? After all, Apple can no longer say that the Windows OS or Intel hardware is not powerful enough to run Apple applications. It clearly is. And by picking Unix as the underlying platform for OS X, Apple acknowledged as much several years ago.

No matter what happens, the iPod has been fantastic for Apple – both for profits and hopefully, for its long-term vision. The iPod has proven that it is OK for Apple to sell Windows products, and established Apple as a maker of premium computer and electronic goods around the world.

Even though all of the above is true, I must admit that when I went a year ago into an Apple store to ask about the availability of the first OS-independent 10-gig iPods, I was a little depressed when Apple’s sales rep asked me if I wanted the Mac or PC model.

But that is what the iPod has done. It has ended the OS wars.

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