Pop quiz: Which computing firm a) just got hit with a massive malware attack, b) had the Justice Department sue it for alleged antitrust violations, and yet c) is still widely presumed to be both unstoppable in its industry and the surest investment on the stock market?
Today, the answer is Apple. Fifteen years ago, Microsoft would have owned that description.
Numbers convey part of this turnabout–that Apple is now the third-biggest computer vendor in the United States, or that (far more impressively) about half of American households own at least one Apple product. But those digits don't capture how many old distinctions between being a PC person and a Mac person have washed away.
The shift from traditional, disk-based applications to those hosted on the web first helped take away one reason not to use a Mac. But the enormous emphasis that switch placed on browsers has also forced rapid and convergent evolution of those programs: The capabilities and interfaces of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari increasingly resemble each other.
This migrating has also given Mac and Windows users common enemies: processor-hogging, security-challenged plug-ins like Adobe's Flash and Oracle's Java.
Even Windows and Mac OS X appear to be evolving together, and not just in the form of borrowings like OS X's reliance on right-click menus and the Windows 7 taskbar's debt to OS X's Dock. Both Microsoft and Apple make similar mistakes in the upcoming Windows 8 and the nearly-year-old OS X Lion, each release tries too hard to act like a mobile operating system, with predictably disappointing results on the larger screens of laptops and desktops.
And as the record-high proportion of Macs apparently infected by Flashback malware shows–those 600,000 hacked Macs make up about 1 percent of the installed base, while no single threat has taken out more than .7 percent of PCs in use, the Mac's touted security edge looks badly frayed.
The white hat no longer always fits on Apple's head either. The DoJ's e-book antitrust case may not be that strong, but it follows other cases of Apple throwing its weight around, such as demanding 30 percent of subscriptions done through iOS apps. Even when Apple arguably tries to do better (it's opened more of its overseas manufacturing to inspection than many rivals), as an immensely profitable multinational corporation it faces a higher burden of proof.
But the difference between Apple users and, um, the rest of us may be as strong as ever in the younger market of tablets and smartphones.
In this realm, apps seem to matter more–maybe because it's even easier to add or remove them on an iPhone than on a Mac. And while Google's Android is no slouch, it remains well behind iOS in terms of app sales, and its users still long for some talked-about titles. Meanwhile, a few iOS fans apparently have no memory of the Mac wanting for popular programs; when the iPhone favorite Instagram shipped an Android version, they reacted with snobbish scorn.
A similar amnesia prevails among Android vendors that seem blissfully unaware of how PC manufacturers went astray by neglecting design and tarting up their machines with third-party "crapware."
One fitting response to these changes: "I wish I'd told my mom to buy Apple stock 20 years ago."
Another: a certain humility about predicting that any one firm will keep computing wrapped around its finger for the next 15 years.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro / Discovery