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Why Apple is on top today: the top 10 technology decisions

As Apple overtook Microsoft in market cap and as Steve Jobs reminisced about some recent history, I thought I’d reflect on some of the decisions that brought Apple to the pinnacle of technology companies.  The criteria I used to select these is how improbable and hence courageous they were when taken and how much impact they have had on the industry. Since the impact of these decisions could not be felt for a long time, the courage required to act early is all the more remarkable.

At the time they were made, none of these decisions did anything to move the stock price or cause great rejoicing. In fact, in many cases the decisions were ridiculed by those who should know better. Yet each one became a massive pillar of the foundation of Apple as it is today.  As you read through, think of the decisions that Apple competitors made or did not make in the same time frame.

Top 10 Apple technology decisions of the 2000 decade in reverse order:

    10. HTML 5 (canvas). It was initially introduced by Apple for use inside their own Mac OS X WebKit component, powering applications like Dashboard widgets and the Safari browser. Still in its infancy, the canvas element is an Apple technology that promises to finally offer a credible Flash equivalent.  Remember that Flash is now over 10 years old and was incubated at a time when the Web was barely 1.0.  HTML canvas finally brings vector graphics to the modern era.
    9. H.264. The decision to support a standard video codec at a time when the industry was mostly arguing over whether Blu-ray or HD-DVD would win signaled a foresight that physical media was not long for this world.  The consequences are still being weighed as YouTube and other media sources are shifting their inventory to this format.
    8. iTunes. iTunes started as a personal music database, grew into a music and media store-front, a payment processing engine, device synchronization and updating center, and finally an application store.  It was forked into both a PC and a mobile version.  Without iTunes the iPod would have been just another MP3 player.
    7. WiFi. Implemented in Airport before the spec was finished, WiFi gave the laptop wings.  Think back to when you still had to plug a wire into a computer to have it communicate. PC’s did not catch up in being wireless for years.  WiFi was even a rare feature on mobile phones when the iPhone shipped in 2007 with some operators (Verizon) banning it from their phones even in 2009.
    6. FireWire. Along with iTunes brought iPod to life.  Launched at a time when external drives required screwdrivers and a circuit board to install, FireWire made opening your computer case to expand it as common as opening the hood of your car to fix it.
    5. iLife. Did to user-generated media what word processors did to words and spreadsheets did to numbers. A singularly great reason to get a Mac.
    4. Portability. OSX migrated across three different CPU architectures in less than 10 years. Apple revealed that they built it from day one to be portable to different CPUs.  That took amazing foresight in the late 90s.
    3. WebKit. Speed and flexibility.  The biggest reason why we can surf on a phone today.
    2. Multi-Touch UI. Seven years in development and still sublime.  Starting down this road in 2003 must have seemed science fiction.  But, unlike other companies, Apple took this science experiment and went to market.  Steve Jobs said how he wanted a screen keyboard and how scrolling opened his eyes to making a phone. That took vision.
    1. OSX/Cocoa. The company’s backbone.  Everything above hangs off OSX. Remarkably scaleable, portable, robust and reliable.  With roots going back decades, it’s the canonical OS. Somebody should build a monument to it.