Watch CBSN Live

Apple, Google, Microsoft Fight to Get, Stop Ubiquity

How do you keep a business growing and strong enough to push off competitors? Have it everywhere at the same time. These days, one of the grand triumvirates of antagonism has been Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Much of the tussles back and forth are misunderstood because they are taken at too simplistic a level and not seen in the full competitive context that shapes what these companies do in the world, and to each other. That full context is the attempt to not only be ubiquitous, but to trip up each other's attempts.

Microsoft's model, seeded in the 1980s, has been to push Windows as the operating system for all computers and to have everyone take a PC-centric approach to doing everything, starting with business and moving into the home. The company didn't care who made the hardware, so long as it could get its operating system on the device. Yes, I know there are many Microsoft products aimed at consumers, but its real strength was always in the corporation. If you had people use a Microsoft-powered PC at work, chances are that they'd use the same at home because of familiarity. Then Microsoft tried to branch out to other devices with embedded versions of Windows, and had some significant success. But those products haven't kept up with what technology can do and what people want to do, so it's rapidly losing market share in the areas that aren't regular PCs. As computing shifts, Microsoft becomes increasingly vulnerable. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it waned and lost much of its influence over the next five to ten years, unless it finds a significantly new type of product to bring to market.

The biggest slip, at least conceptually, has been in mobile, particularly handsets, and that's where Apple's version of ubiquity has been effective. That company relies on what I'll call apparent design panache. I say apparent, because a lot of the engineering, particularly on the hardware side, is actually done by others. But no matter: it's all branded Apple. When devices are small enough and portable enough, the prices come down to a point at which more people can consider buying them. Rather than Macs, which had traditionally enjoyed lofty margins, pushing entry level prices up to a level that made most consumers uncomfortable, an iPhone is a relatively affordable item, particularly when that amount is subsidized by a cell carrier. When the consumer has bought in, Apple then tries to control as much as possible, whether the music purchase relationship or the sources of applications for the device. This is actually a clever adaptation of the company's original "own the hardware and software" strategy, because it invites, in a controlled way, sources of revenue that are beyond its own capabilities, whether in expertise or just resources. What this requires is ubiquity of "cool" -- an image into which people buy -- as well as of habit, which is one explanation of why iTunes has such a big hold on music downloading. But that image becomes increasingly hard to hold as Apple expands its customer base. It needs more customers because of investor demands to constantly increase revenue, but the broader the base, the smaller a portion is really of the Apple-loyalist ilk.

Google has gone the route of ubiquity of information and services on the web, trying to be everything to everyone. Although he was writing about Google Apps, Fortune's Quentin Hardy could have been addressing the company's umbrella strategy under the headline, When Google Runs Your Life. The company essentially wants to be the gatekeeper for access to all information, which means having a finger in every single pie that relies on the information -- which means all of them. But Google may become victim as well as beneficiary of its enormous presence, even more than Microsoft was in the 1990s in relation to its market dominance. When you're looking at everything, many people stop trusting you, whether they are consumers or the heads of "business partners."

Each of the companies recognizes the power of the others' ubiquity, and so tries to disrupt it. Microsoft wants standing in search and web delivery of services because that would potentially disrupt the smooth progression of Google. Google wants Android and Chrome OS to joggle Apple and Microsoft. Apple wants mobile computing to weaken the relationship to the desktop or even laptop, which means injuring Microsoft. In every case, the expansion into another market doesn't need to be complete and overwhelming. It just has to be enough to disrupt the established leader. That's also why you'll find one trying to buy a company that would interest another, like Google and Apple vying for the same start-ups. Not everything is about winning every race. Sometimes it about tripping the other guy just long enough.

Image via stock.xchng user Bullit, site standard license.

View CBS News In