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Waiting in line for iphoneThe excitement is palpable! “The iPhone 6 is coming…”  Will it have a plastic case, a front and rear camera, voice recognition, super-resolution screen, direct neural interface, or even four on the floor?

By the time you read this blog you should already know the answers to these questions.  You may even be one of those who wait in line for hours to be the first to purchase the next version of the iPhone, trading in (or selling) your iPhone 4 or iPhone 5 for this next generation of iPhone.

Apple seeks to keep us upgrading and turning over our cell phones, computers, and other devices to get the latest and greatest features. But how different is this from Microsoft that seeks to keep us upgrading their operating system (Windows 2XXX) and associated Office programs?

Neal Stephenson, the well-known science fiction and cyber science writer (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and other prophetic fiction works about our cyber world), made relevant comments on this question in 1999 in a book titled, In the Beginning was the Command Line. The book is part-essay and part-historical discussion of the evolution of Apple computer products in comparison to the evolution of Microsoft products.

In the book, Stephenson traces the history of our interaction with computers from teletypes to punch card machines, command lines, and ultimately graphical interfaces, such as those introduced by Apple and followed by Microsoft.  He makes interesting and amusing comparisons among HTML, computer operating system interpreters, telegraphs, and Ronald Reagan acting as a sports radio announcer in Des Moines, Iowa.

Stephenson argues that Apple and Microsoft have two different but still highly effective strategies that have made both companies very successful and their owners/executives very rich.  In essence, Apple seeks to sell expensive hardware, using unique physical designs and appealing human computer interfaces. The Apple operating systems and interface only execute on Apple hardware.

By contrast, Microsoft creates and sells operating systems and packaged tools that operate on a variety of computing equipment.  Microsoft “sells” software and Apple “sells” hardware using the “cool” interface as the hook to sell the hardware.  Advertisements for Apple products seek to convince potential customers that if they buy Apple products they are cool and hip, while Microsoft users are mindless drones, as in the Super Bowl advertisement that introduced the MacIntosh in 1984.

But a nagging question that ought to keep both Apple and Microsoft executives awake at night is this: At what point will consumers stop buying new hardware and software because they’re content with what they have and rebel against hardware and software version churning?  A related question: When will every one of the 7 billion residents of planet earth already have the computers, cell phones, and other devices that they want?

Automobile manufactures faced a similar situation in the past 30 years. At the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, annual automobile sales in the U. S. rose to a height of 11.4 M cars in 1986; by 2009 this rate had dropped to less than 50% of the previous level.  Consumers stopped buying new cars and began keeping their cars for ten years or more, eschewing new designs, colors, and models.

Will this occur for cell phones, computers and related devices?  At some point, will people resist the urge for yet one more version of iPhone, iPad, etc.? I don’t know the answer to this question.  But I suspect computer hardware and software executives are quietly asking themselves similar versions of this question.

Hardware and software creators may turn to a strategy used in fashion – continually creating a fashion du jour that people “must have.”  I can’t remember how many cycles men’s ties have gone through from micro-thin to plate size wide with varying colors (all I know is that I’m always at least one cycle behind).  We may see new mobile computer/phones with ever-changing designer colors, widths, thicknesses, and accompanying “coordinates.” That strategy may work.

Perhaps in a few years you’ll be standing in line for the new iPhone 47.  I hear it will come in chartreuse with a new designer cover!

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