What if Apple had gone bankrupt?

Are you excited for Windows 7? We are, and we suspect hearts are fluttering in Redmond too; arguably, the new Windows OS is the most revolutionary since Windows 95. If it lives up to the hype, computing will never be the same again. If it doesn’t, Windows Corp could be in serious trouble.

What if Apple had gone bankrupt?

To understand why Windows 7 is so important, it’s necessary to understand the history of the company that publishes it. It’s a history that begins almost 20 years ago, back in the days when Windows (at that time, part of Microsoft) vied with Apple Computer and its Macintosh system for desktop supremacy. The battle was always uneven: Windows had the lion’s share of the desktop OS market, to the extent that Microsoft more than once faced legal charges of operating an anti-competitive monopoly. But the rivalry spurred both companies to innovate and compete.

Apple was undone by its own management. For several years in the mid-1990s, the company had allowed third parties to manufacture licensed Macintosh “clones” in exchange for royalty payments; this came to an abrupt end in 1997, when co-founder Steven Jobs took charge of the company and, as one of his first acts, cancelled the clone programme.

With Apple gone, Windows Corp could no longer look to its rival for inspiration

The result was predictably disastrous: with a major revenue stream gone, Apple found itself suddenly struggling to pay its bills. The company began an urgent search for new investors – even at one point shamefacedly approaching Microsoft, which not surprisingly declined to help – but after Jobs’ calamitous opening gambit as CEO, no-one was willing to take a chance on his company. By the end of the year, Apple Computer was in administration.

Initially, Apple’s fall was seen as a stroke of terrific good fortune for Windows, but it proved a mixed blessing. Windows became a de facto monopoly: a 1999 survey found that more than 98% of PCs sold were running either Windows 98 or NT 4. Shortly afterwards, the US courts ordered the breakup of the company into the three separate businesses we know today.

It’s been argued that the breakup marks a clear turning point in the history of Windows, and it’s certainly true that the OS stagnated after being spun off on its own. Under Microsoft, the OS had seen rapid, progressive development; after the split, a decade of releases and service packs achieved little more than tweaking the graphics and rolling in the odd security update.

However, we suspect the real problem wasn’t the breakup itself, but rather the conditions that precipitated it. Microsoft had, to put it bluntly, a track record of building products on the back of other people’s ideas, and Windows in particular borrowed multiple ideas directly from the Macintosh. With Apple gone, Windows Corp could no longer look to its rival for inspiration. Left to its own devices, it struggled for years to find direction.

Happily, Windows seems at last to have found that direction – and an exciting one it is too. While touchscreen smartphones are becoming increasingly commonplace, touchscreen PCs have hitherto been the preserve of kiosks and specialist art applications. Star Trek-style “tablet PCs”, such as those envisaged by Windows Corp, open up possibilities.

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