It's official: Apple is the new Microsoft

There's a new monopolistic, copycat bully in town

Ten years ago, Microsoft was the company everyone loved to hate.

The most vociferous Microsoft haters slammed the company for being a greedy industry bully that used its monopolistic, clunky, copycat operating system to force software on users and coerce partners into unfair licensing deals.

Don't look now, but the role of the industry's biggest bully is increasingly played by Apple, not Microsoft. Here's a look at how Apple has shoved Microsoft aside as the company with the worst reputation as a monopolist, copycat and a bully.

Apple the monopolist

The core complaint about Microsoft in the 1990s was that its Windows market share gave it monopoly power, which it abused in multiple ways. Attorneys General and others zeroed in on the "bundling" of the Internet Explorer Web browser, which they claimed was forced on users because Microsoft offered it as part of Windows.

People love iPods (including me; my family of four has purchased 12 iPods in the past few years). But iPods come bundled with iTunes. Want to buy music from Apple? Guess what? You must install iTunes. Want an Apple cell phone from AT&T? Yep! ITunes is required even if you want only to make phone calls. Want to buy ringtones for your Apple phone? ITunes.

Apple not only "bundles" iTunes with multiple products, it forces you to use it. At least with Internet Explorer, you could always just download a competitor and ignore IE.

Not fair, you might say. Any hardware device that syncs data with a PC as part of its core functionality has software to facilitate that syncing. True enough. But operating systems have browsers as part of core functionality, too. Doesn't Mac OS X come with Safari? Doesn't the iPhone?

And "bundling" works. Steve Jobs bragged this week that Apple has distributed 600 million copies of iTunes to date. The overwhelming majority of those copies were iTunes for Windows. And iTunes for Windows' popularity isn't driven by software product quality. ITunes is the slowest, clunkiest, most nonintuitive application on my system. But I need it because I love my iPods.

At least with Windows, you could reformat your PC and install Linux or any number of other PC-compatible operating systems. Can I reformat my iPod and install something else? Can I uninstall iTunes but keep using the iTunes store and my iPods? Apple strongly discourages all that, claiming that the iPod, the iPod software and iTunes are three components of the same product. But that's what Microsoft said about Windows and IE.

Sorry, dad

Here's a scenario for you. A consumer walks into a local retail outlet to buy a Christmas present for dad. The Apple iPod "section" of the store dwarfs the section where all the also-ran players are displayed. IPod is clearly the trusted standard. The consumer buys a shiny new "Fatty" iPod nano with video.

Dad opens the present and is excited. He follows the directions, installs iTunes and immediately splurges on a few dozen songs at the iTunes store. He loves it, and is an instant convert to portable digital music.

The only downside is that he works out every day at the gym, where cardio machines face TVs that broadcast sound over FM radio. Six months later, when his iPod is stolen, he goes to buy another player -- this time, he hopes, with an FM radio in it. Several competitors offer this feature, but not iPods. He's about to choose a new player with an FM radio when it hits him: None of his files -- now totaling 300 songs and 50 movies -- will play on the new player. He bought and paid for all this content, but it only works with iPods and iTunes.

Apple has an iPod customer for life. Microsoft never had this kind of monopoly power. Sorry, dad. I should have bought you a tie.

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