Technology on a Soviet Schedule

Joseph Stalin by Victor OreshnikovStalin would have been proud of the accomplishments made in the technology economy’s last half-decade. While I don’t think for a minute there’s been a devious mastermind that formulated any 5-Year Plan, there was a similar sense of urgency in the industry to that of circa-1928 USSR.

2001 saw the introduction of four particularly important products that defined the contemporary technology landscape. Apple’s modern operating system, OS X, was released on March 24. In October the company unleashed that little monster, the iPod, just days before Microsoft set free Windows XP, another monster of sorts. Finally, on November 15, we all met the XBox game system.

Wow, we haven’t seen that much geeky goodness inside of twelve months since, well… since then.

So, with a nod to the 2002 Vin Diesel spy thriller, I’d like to christen this period of technology the “Age of iXXX” (iPod, XBox, XP, OS X, in case you missed the reference).

Clearly the biggest surprise from the Age of iXXX was Apple’s iPod. In just five years this diminutive music player literally redefined both the computer and music industries.

Not as influential, but still clearly astounding was Apple’s own reinvention of itself and its decrepit Mac computing platform. At the turn of the century the company and its technologies were on life support. Michael Dell, in fact, called on Apple’s board of directors to demonstrate mercy by pulling the plug.

What a difference five years can make. Last month Apple’s market value surged past the flagging Dell. The appeal of Mac OS X was the most important component of that streak to success.

2001’s XBox, while (sorta) cool by North American standards, wasn’t the runaway success Microsoft hoped for, despite being an admirable gaming platform. Against all odds, however, Microsoft managed to nibble at video game behemoth Sony’s markeshare and gain a foothold in the marketplace. They even broke even. More importantly, XBox became a respected name that served as a great launching pad for its successor.

And then there’s the operating system most everybody loves to hate, Windows XP. Nuff said on that subject.

Now, roughly in keeping with a Sovet-style 5-Year Plan (give or take a year – hey, Stalin was never on time, either), we are now embarking on the second Age of iXXX.

The iPod, the XBox, Windows and the Mac OS are all slated for significant upgrades in 2006 and, judging by their current momentum, they should continue to be major influences on the technology industry for another half decade.

Both Microsoft and Apple will release major new versions of their operating systems in 2006. Windows Vista should squeak out the door to larger businesses around November while Apple’s Leopard should hit the street mid-summer.

This will be the Mac’s fifth such upgrade in as many years, whereas Windows Vista is The One for Microsoft.

Both operating systems will offer advanced multimedia management and playback capabilities that will promote their respectively successful consumer media technologies, namely the iPod and the XBox.

In fact, from Microsoft we already have the new XBox 360, which was released last October. The X360 not only represents the first step into a new generation of gaming it’s also a magnificent media management and playback appliance that integrates well with the “Media Edition” of Windows XP.

Heck, with an inexpensive piece of shareware I can even access music and photo libraries that are stored on my Mac from the X360. Windows Vista should fully enable the X360 as a proper media centre.

Apple’s iPod evolved into a rudimentary mobile video player almost as a afterthought. Rumour has it we’ll see a “real” video iPod later this year. This generation of devices will be completely redesigned around video as a core aspect of functionality.

The new iPods will likely coincide with an updated iTunes Store that offers feature-length movies for download. As they did with music, Apple intends to redefine how people consume and enjoy film, video and television content.

The first Age of iXXX was clearly Apple’s perestroika. The company now leads the market with its endless ingenuity, marketing savvy, and hip demeanour. Microsoft is still best known as the thing on your desk at work, but they hold a potentially awe-inspiring suite of “cool” applications and hardware that could open new markets for them and redefine the corporation’s stodgy character (bit of advice MS: lose the staid logo).

The iPod and the XBox have each been key vehicles for their respective companies’ divergence away form the PC marketplace and into that amorphous place called “convergence”. Apple and Microsoft want to be the object of your idle hours on the couch.

However, each company excels at different aspects of the market they seek to enter and own.

Like Vancouver real estate agents that deal in urban condos, Apple isn’t hawking technology; they’re selling lifestyle. Apple’s kit may not be a full-featured as its competition, but it’s the definition of chic for contemporary urbanites. Apple’s dripping in cool. Hell, the company is led by a vegetarian, monofashionista, Bonobuddy radical who’s willing to tear down heritage houses on his property.

Conversely, despite holding the hardcore gaming community in awe, Microsoft still hasn’t clued into the concept of style or usability. With the XBox 360, it’s still about a feature-for-feature competition between devices (mainly Sony’s upcoming Playstation 3) and raw power.

The X360 is the most complex and unwieldy game console ever, even with its funky interface. The exterior design of the device resembles a beige-era PC and just doesn’t look comfortable sitting beside other home entertainment devices.

On the corporate side, Microsoft’s got, well, Microsoft’s still got Bill Gates as their patron saint, which is a tough hurdle to overcome. And don’t even mention the straight man, Steve Balmer.
My wish? That Apple and Microsoft would team up to reinvent the way we consume and enjoy popular media.

While the results may not be quite as pretty as the iPod or as grittily potent as the XBox, an Apple/Microsoft xPod or iBox or whatever it’s called would probably strike a better balance between form and function than anything the two companies might independently produce.

Alas, an Apple-Microsoft alliance isn’t too realistic. Instead, we’ll all have to stand back and watch the second Age of iXXX unfold. When the dust clears in five years or so, the results will certainly have changed our lives again.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 26, 2006.

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