"You can make parallels with computers: Apple was very strong in this field before, with its Macintosh and its graphics user interface -- like the iPod today -- and then lost its position." - Bill Gates, May 12, 2005.
Bill Gates was unusually dismissive of Apple last week, in describing the market's eventual move to phone-centric devices for digital music. The comment above and the launch of the XBox 360 on a Hobbit-hosted MTV infomercial last week could be the first salvo in a very public platform war between Apple and Microsoft. How retro.
In one corner, we have the vertically-integrated Apple approach - armed with HD-friendly QuickTime, iPod and video-enabled iTunes, the Mac Mini, and Hollywood leverage from half-sister Pixar. The Mini could become, says pundit Robert Cringely, an Internet-enabled HD set-top box. In the other corner, Microsoft has Windows Media, a robust and almost-mature Media Center platform, XBox 360 and a well-supported ecosystem of hardware, software and digital media developers.
Thomas Hawk and Jupiter's Michael Gartenberg describe the XBox 360 as a Trojan Horse into the living room. By combining gaming with photos, music, HDTV, built-in home networking, and a rumored DVR, Microsoft can seamlessly extend it's platform from the home office to the living room.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say history repeats itself. Microsoft's open approach trumps Apple's closed system. And to hedge, Microsoft also places digital media bets on cable and telco infrastructure.
I don't believe you can overlook the power of a robust developer community. Look no further than Yahoo's superb new music service. Built on the Windows Media platform - and network enabled by UPnP - this could give iTunes a run for its money. Yahoo's wide distribution and an interconnected set of services could finally build mass-market awareness for the value of a music subscription service. With Flickr, Yahoo 360, and Yahoo Music, is there anyone better right now at building and integrating complex and innovative online services?
Competition between Apple and Microsoft, and perhaps Sony and others, should mean more choice for consumers in the products and services they choose, and the media they enjoy. I write this as I sit here listening, on Yahoo Music Unlimited, to a funky Alice Coltrane album from 1971 that I had never heard of before yesterday.