Apple rarely competes directly — with anyone.

Instead of slugging it out with other hardware and software companies on a level playing field, Apple historically creates its own playing field from scratch, then dominates it utterly.

While nearly the whole industry participated in what used to be called the 'IBM-compatible' market, with clone hardware running DOS, OS/2, Windows and, later, Linux, Apple refused to play. Instead, the company always built its own computers that ran its own operating system.

Those funny 'PC vs. Mac' ads create the false impression of direct, one-on-one, competition between PCs and Macs, but it’s a marketing sleight of hand. While a Mac is a unified, tightly controlled hardware-and-software product from Apple, a PC contains an unpredictable mixture of hardware components integrated by any number of companies, lorded over (usually) by a Microsoft operating system.

If PCs were made by Microsoft, and Microsoft didn’t allow anyone else to make PCs, then you could make an apples-to-apples comparison, as it were, between PCs vs. Macs. But they’re not, so you can’t.

While Dell competes directly with HP and hundreds of other companies in the PC space, Apple does not compete directly with anyone in the Mac market.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad thing. There are advantages and disadvantages to Apple’s approach, and the success of Apple brings welcome choice to the market.

Likewise with the iPod. The portable media player market is the House That Apple Built. The company owns the iTunes platform and largely controls digital music distribution. Steve Jobs is the most powerful man in Hollywood, and he doesn’t even live there. Apple doesn’t compete directly with anyone in the media player market because, like the Mac market, Apple created the media file management platform (iTunes), the content marketplace (digital file distribution through iTunes) and standards, and doesn’t let anyone else play.

With the iPhone, Apple is once again refusing to compete directly in the mobile phone market. While some handset makers compete directly with each other in the Windows Mobile, Symbian and other ‘open’ platform markets, companies like Research In Motion, Palm and, soon, Apple all play in their own respective, self-created sandboxes. Controlling your own platform has proved for RIM and Palm to be the way to go, and will also be successful for Apple.

Apple is once again creating its own category - call it the Mac OS-based mobile phone category - and I’m sure Apple will win 100 percent market share.

I can think of only one example in which Apple competes directly with other companies on a level, open playing field: the software media player market.

Apple’s Windows version of QuickTime competes directly with Microsoft’s bundled Windows Media Player, RealNetworks’ RealPlayer and others. Although QuickTime holds its own, Apple doesn’t dominate market share. But from a quality and usability standpoint, QuickTime is by far the superior player, in my opinion. For video quality, sound quality and ease of use, QuickTime rules in every element of the user experience.

So why do I have such a bad feeling about Safari for Windows?

By announcing a Safari for Windows, Jobs uncharacteristically entered a mature market not created or controlled by Apple.

This is Sparta

The insular Apple universe is a relatively gentle place, an Athenian utopia where Apple’s occasional missteps are forgiven, all partake of the many blessings of citizenship, and everyone feels like they’re part of an Apple-created golden age of lofty ideas and superior design.

But the Windows world isn’t like that. It’s a cold, unforgiving place where nothing is sacred, users turn like rabid wolves on any company that makes even the smallest error, and no prisoners are taken. Especially the Windows browser market.

This is no Athens. This is Sparta.

Apple sent its first emissary, the beta version of Safari for Windows (see our Safari 3.0 beta on Windows review), into the Windows world, and it was unceremoniously kicked into the well.

Hours after Jobs announced Safari for Windows (and despite Apple’s claim that Safari is “designed to be secure from Day One”) security experts published information about some 18 security holes found in the new browser. Bloggers and message board posters lunged at the news, and heaped vicious scorn and ridicule on Apple and Safari.

The browser is beta, and bugs are expected. Apple fixed the problems just three days after they surfaced.

Apple-fan bloggers are aghast at the rough treatment. But they’d better get used to it.

While security nerds were ripping Apple for a buggy beta, the UI enthusiasts started going after Apple for the look and feel. Here’s a small sample. Apple can expect much more of this in the future. The problem? Safari for Windows just isn’t Windows enough.

Windows can only be resized from the bottom-right corner. Safari uses Mac OS X font anti-aliasing instead of Windows’ built-in ClearType, and fonts look blurry and all bold, all the time. Menus are hard to read. Safari uses its own, unalterable, non-standard key combinations for things like flipping through tabs. The list goes on and on.

In Apple’s Athenian utopia, the company’s overwhelming superiority complex is a good thing. Its products are beautiful, Apple stores are breathtaking and the software user interfaces smack of sublime perfection.

But when Apple asserts its ‘superior’ user interface conventions in a Windows context where everyone is used to and comfortable with the Microsoft way, bad things happen.

Windows users are forced to use iTunes if they want to play their iPods, which, like everyone else, they do. But it’s a painful, time-consuming and irritating experience for many who are used to largely standardised Windows conventions of button, bar and menu placement and functionality.

Apple gets away with its our-way-or-the-highway UI design with QuickTime because controls beyond the standard VCR ‘Play’, ‘Pause’, ‘Stop’, ‘Fast-forward’, etc, are unnecessary and therefore absent.

But on a browser, Apple will need to do things the Windows way or get eaten alive.

Although Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominates browser market share, Apple’s real competition is Firefox, which most active and advanced users love and which is the other major browser not bundled with Windows. Most people inclined to install a second or replacement browser on Windows have already done so, and most have installed Firefox.

See our Firefox 2 versus Internet Explorer 7 review

Firefox fans are small in number compared with Internet Explorer users, but they’re a passionate, enthusiastic and vocal crowd. It’s these Firefox users that Apple will find at the entrance of the Windows browser market, with swords and shields at the ready.

Mozilla has taken a play out of Microsoft’s own playbook by making Firefox almost fully compatible with a World Wide Web largely designed to work on IE. Rather than fighting and resisting these de facto standards, it has embraced and even improved upon them.

Will Apple follow this winning formula? The beta suggests it may not.

Apple will need to approach Windows UI with humility - a rare commodity at Apple - and do things the Microsoft way, or pay the price in market share.

Why pick a fight now?

Some analysts are suggesting, and I tend to agree with them, that a primary motive for entering the browser fight this late in the game has little to do with browsers and everything to do with iPhones.

Jobs announced last week that the iPhone would support third-party applications only in the form of internet-based browser applications. And guess which browser runs on the iPhone? Apple no doubt wants to provide additional incentive to software developers to build sites and applications that support Safari.

See how Apple ‘thinks different’ about these things?

Rather than providing iPhone users with the existing universe of largely IE-optimised applications and sites in a browser that supports existing standards, and telling iPhone application developers to just go ahead and build universally compatible apps that will also run on the iPhone, Apple feels the overpowering need to once again build and control a new, proprietary playing field.

This is the problem with Apple’s plan: To control the user experience of third-party apps on the iPhone, Apple needs to control a quasi-proprietary browser platform. To get developers to build for the browser, Apple needs the power of market share. To get market share, Apple needs Windows compatibility and Windows-user acceptance. And - here’s where the logic fails - to get a critical mass of Windows users, Safari needs to embrace existing web standards, UI conventions and functionality.

The iPhone will do fine in the market, and a smattering of cool apps will be written for Safari-on-iPhone. But I think Safari will get slaughtered in the bare-knuckled brawl that is the Windows browser market.

Apple may believe that it can enter and dominate at least the ‘alternative’ Windows browser market as it did the media player space. But this is an entirely new and unfamiliar world for Apple. Direct competition on a level-playing field that Apple doesn’t control just isn’t Apple’s thing.

Safari on Windows will fail.

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