General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. --Conan the Barbarian, 1982
A key reason for Apple's success has been that it has been more concerned with the customer experience than in trying to jostle for competitive position per se. Nonetheless, it has been striking to see how many of Apple's strongest PC competitors from its dark days have been struggling so mightily as of late. The Compaq and Gateway brands are all but gone after being swallowed up years ago by HP and Acer. Dell, with which Apple has had a particularly nasty history, has left the public market. And Microsoft is reeling from dwindling PC sales and a painful transition to a touch-enabled Windows. Only Lenovo seems to have much momentum.
The iPod had a huge impact on the music industry, but it wasn't much of a factor for most device companies. (An exception was Sony, which had owned the portable music franchise with Walkman.) As Reality Absorption Field describedindetail, many of the companies that entered the digital media player market had much more significant businesses in PCs or TVs and weren't threatened by Apple's little white toy.
The iPhone -- while far more devastating to Apple's competitors -- was quite straightforward. After years of denying its relevance, companies such as RIM and Nokia scrambled to device responses to the iPhone, leaving them with OS options that represented a small slice of the market. Other feature phone giants such as Motorola and LG now have a sliver of the Android market, as does HTC. All have been massively outspent in marketing by Samsung, the only feature phone-era handset maker (and really only other handset maker besides Apple) to flourish since the iPhone's launch.
The iPad, though, has had a profound albeit less direct effect on the PC industry, and one in which Apple has had an unlikely accomplice: Android. As one would expect, Apple's pricing on the iPad Air and iPad mini are at or near the top of the range for their size. They have kept a healthy distance from the Mac, but have cut more deeply into the price range of Windows notebooks. As was shown during the netbook era, PC makers can -- at least for a short time -- tolerate going even lower, but Android tablets have wiped out all chance of that. Walmart now offers 7" tablets running Ice Cream Sandwich for $69 (or less).
Tablets may not be able to do everything people want a PC can do yet. For one, some people aren't ready to give up the keyboard and would rather not fiddle around with Bluetooth. Since early 2011, ASUS -- which retreated from Windows RT -- has offered its Transformer series of Android tablets that tuck neatly into docking keyboards. Now, the idea is being adopted by PC stalwarts such as HP with its Slatebook X2 and Lenovo with its IdeaPad A10 using a hinge inspired by its Yoga Windows products that won't be offered in North America. How long will it be, though, before we see the idea knocked off by low-balling brands at Walmart? There are already snap-on Bluetooth keyboard covers for the 7" Galaxy Tab and Nexus 7 that cost about $25.
PC makers are flailing. The Windows 8.1 experience on x86 remains fractured. Windows RT lacks key apps. Both are profit-protecting paradises compared with Android. Then there are Chromebooks, which offer a clean, simple and streamlined Web experience as long as you're online. Cut off connectivity, and different services can behave quite differently. Are Apple's competitors "confused" as Tim Cook asserts? Maybe they have a sense of where they want to go, but the path that they're on now is proving a bumpy road.
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.