Review: Digital Wars by Charles Arthur

Subtitled Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the internet, this is an account by the Guardian’s Technology Editor of the progress of three tech titans between 1998 and the present day. In 1998, Google was just getting started, Apple was at the beginning of its recovery under the returning CEO Steve Jobs, and Microsoft dominated PCs and was busy crushing Netscape.

Here is how the market capitalization of the three changed between 1998 and 2011:

  End 1998 Mid 2011
Apple $5.4 billion $346.7 billion
Google $10 million $185.1 billion
Microsoft $344.6 billion $214.3 billion

This book tells the story behind that dramatic change in fortunes. It is a great read, written in a concise, clear and engaging style, and informed by the author’s close observation of the technology industry over that period.

That said, it is Apple that gets the best quality coverage here, not only because it is the biggest winner, but also because it is the company for which Arthur feels most affinity. When it comes to Microsoft the book focuses mainly on the company’s big failures in search, digital music and smartphones, but although these failures are well described, the question of why it has performed so badly is not fully articulated, though there is reference to the impact of antitrust legislation and an unflattering portrayal of CEO Steve Ballmer. The inner workings of Google are even less visible and if your main interest is the ascent of Google you should look elsewhere.

Leaving aside Google then, describing the success of Apple alongside Microsoft’s colossal blunders makes compelling reading. Arthur is perhaps a little unfair to Microsoft, because he skips over some of the company’s better moments, such as the success of Windows 7 and Windows Server, or even the Xbox 360, though he would argue I think that those successes are peripheral to his theme which is internet and mobile.

The heart of the book is in chapters four, on digital music, and five, on smartphones. The iPod, after all, was the forerunner of the Apple iPhone, and the iPhone was the forerunner of the iPad. Microsoft’s famous ecosystem of third-party hardware partners failed to compete with the Ipod, and by the time the company got it mostly right by abandoning its partners and creating the Zune, it was too late.

The smartphone story played out even worse for Microsoft, given that this was a market where it already had significant presence with Windows Mobile. Arthur describes the launch of the iPhone, and then recounts how Microsoft acquired a great mobile phone team with a company called Danger, and proceeded to destroy it. The Danger/Pink episode shows more than any other how broken is Microsoft’s management and mobile strategy. Danger was acquired in February 2008. There was then, Arthur describes, an internal battle between the Windows Mobile team and the Danger team, won by the Windows Mobile team under Andy Lees, and resulting in 18 months delay while the Danger operating system was rewritten to use Windows CE. By the time the first new “Project Pink” phone was delivered it was short on features and no longer wanted by Verizon, the partner operator. The “Kin” phone was on the market for only 48 days.

The Kin story was dysfunctional Microsoft at its worst, a huge waste of money and effort, and could have broken a smaller company. Microsoft shrugged it off, showing that its Windows and Office cash cows continue to insulate it against incompetence, probably too much for its own long-tem health.

Finally, the book leaves the reader wondering how the story continues. Arthur gets the significance of the iPad in business:

Cook would reel off statistics about the number of Fortune 500 companies ‘testing or deploying’ iPads, of banks and brokers that were trying it, and of serious apps being written for it. Apple was going, ever so quietly, after the business computing market – the one that had belonged for years to Microsoft.

Since he wrote those words that trend has increased, forming a large part of what is called Bring Your Own Device or The Consumerization of IT. Microsoft does have what it hopes is an answer, which is Windows 8, under a team led by the same Steven Sinofsky who made a success of Windows 7. The task is more challenging this time round though: Windows 7 was an improved version of Windows Vista, whereas Windows 8 is a radical new departure, at least in respect of its Metro user interface which is for the Tablet market. If Windows 8 fares as badly against the iPad as Plays for Sure fared against the iPod, then expect further decline in Microsoft’s market value.


One thought on “Review: Digital Wars by Charles Arthur”

  1. Hmmm so its nothing more than a collation of information readily available on the web, no insights at all.

    The guy is just an observer like you, me and every other surfer.


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