Canonical and HP: Microsoft and Apple, Round Two

I am feeling very speculative today so I thought I would throw out a hypothetical situation that wouldn’t at all surprise me should the events actually unfold. As the title of the post suggests, I suggest an anaolgy: Canonical and HP are currently heading on a trajectory that may later leave analysts comparing them to the Microsoft and Apple of the 80’s and early 90’s. Let’s talk about it.

The Similarities

Starting off with the similarities, first, Canonical is a software company looking to make a profit in a different way from other large software companies, much akin to Microsoft’s approach to selling DOS and Windows when it first launched. Is Canonical the first company to attempt its specific sales model? Of course not, as Novell and Red Hat have been selling Linux based solutions for ages. Canonical does benefit from some differences. The Red Hat and Novell software itself has not always been free, as Canonical’s is, nor has either company marketed their community products under the same nomen as their enterprise products (e.g. the Fedora/Red Hat pairing).

Canonical is also very willing to ship their software with any partner. Microsoft initially wanted to bundle with IBM, but IBM wanted too much control over the OS, so the partnership never surfaced. Canonical has tried to partner with hardware manufacturers such as Dell, but in my opnion (and others’) this has hurt the image of Ubunutu more than helped. Canonical currently takes the Microsoft approach of promoting their software across a wide range of personal computing hardware.

The Canonical/Microsoft analogy is there in its own way, as is the HP/Apple analogy. This part is based off another sepculative blog post, that makes the same claim, which I am choosing to echo. HP’s acquisition of Palm this year has given it control over what is arguably the most advanced mobile OS on the market: webOS. With the resources HP has to leverage in favor of webOS, it will soon morph into an “ecosystem operating system” (can I coin that phrase?): an operating system that in turn can be utilized to power a wide range of devices across all hardware niches. Ecosystem OS are particularly nice because they allow programmers to master one set of skills and then apply them across an entire range of platforms. It is the Java model, but less fractured and more marketable. It’s an entirely uniform look-and-feel, consumer-facing environment, not just a code-monkey’s wet dream. An example of an ecosystem OS of today would be Apple’s own OS X and iOS.

HP also builds its own hardware, and in recent years has been attempting to distinguish itself from the box-pushers like Dell and Gateway with a refreshed advertisement campaign, and style-conscious hardware design. webOS already powers mobile phones and will soon power tablet computers. There is no reason why it would not be able to power music playing devices, and personally, I would love to see a full desktop version of webOS, particularly with the first-class citizenship awarded to HTML5 and Javascript.

Both companies, Canonical and HP, have a difficult task ahead, and some monstrous entities either to topple or work with. Who is the IBM of the day? Why Google of course. Stuck in a market that it finds less and less profitable (search and advertising), it is having a tough time redefining itself, especially after such failed forays into the social space that are Wave and Buzz. I wonder if over time it will stop trying to redefine itself and settle into it’s spot much as IBM did, promoting internal innovation and pushing out an unprecendent amount of small changes without mass-marketing them. Become a fixture as it were, reliable and sturdy.

I know the comparisons are a stretch, but this is more a mental exercise, though as I stated at the beginning, not one that would surprise me should it resurface later one. With the similarities in place, I’ll willingly cede some ground to my skeptical readers, as well as highlight some of the exciting differences between today and that early time period that was the 80’s.

The Differences

The biggest difference people will be shouting about is obviously the initial position in which both companies find thesemves. When they started, Apple and Microsoft were both nobodies, and they didn’t know where they were going. Canonical, though small, has a name and a presence, and is growing, not shrinking. HP is a behometh, and moves more computers a year than any of its individual competitors. Apple and Microsoft grew quickly, but neither had the leverage, financial or otherwise, that today’s companies enjoy. Whether or not this makes Canonical and HP more or less willing to take a chance and attempt to become the pillars of tomorrow’s computing infrastructure is hard to speculate, and I’m not even going to try.

A more exciting difference in my opinion is the nature of the companies and the direction of their growth. When Microsoft and Apple started battling, the market was oriented towards steering the consumer into what we now refer to as a “walled garden” of proprietary file formats, operating systems, applications and even hardware. Nowadays, the buzzword are “free,” “open source,” and “portable data.” Today’s consumers are in far better positions to control their own data and protect themselves against corporations closing the gate and locking them into the walled garden. This is of course a double-edged sword: consumers will be more willing to try out a service without fear of lock-in, but corporations will have to continually assure great service, for they can no longer stall the consumer with lock-in and contracts while they attept to improve. It’s a much more fluid consumer base than 20 years ago.

Finally, the sales model has changed. In the beginning it was about hardware that battles between the mainframes. Microsoft and Apple made it about software. The problem here is that the market is changing again and moving more into a more data-oriented model, finally allowing computers to impact almost every aspect of an individual’s life. However, neither Canonical or HP seem to represent this third phase in the same way that Microsoft and Apple represented the second phase. In fact, it is the giant, Google, that of all the names mentioned, seems to represent this data-oriented phase the best. Is the analogy between Google and IBM even close then, considering IBM represented the past, but Google seems to represent a skipped step, or even a future we are still truly unprepared for?

This being more a thought exercise, I am not personally going to expound much on these points. No analogies are perfect. I am just attempting to clarify what the next iteration of the computing-loop might look like. Not all of the variables are in their final state because the current iteration of the loop isn’t yet over. The closer we get to the end, the clearer the picture will be and the more precise the predictions. In the meantime, forecasting this far out is just a whole heck of a lot more fun!

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