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By Jeremy Keith (Flickr: Cuddling with multiple devices) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cuddling with multiple devices, photo by Jeremy Keith via Wikimedia Commons.
Thought experiment: You have developed a groundbreaking computing device, a worthy hardware challenger to every laptop, tablet, phablet, and phone known. Through a totally unrealistic quirk of licensing fate, you have the option of slapping the Apple, Google, or Microsoft brand on it.

Which one do you choose?

What you decide may have a lot less to do with individual features or technical specifications than with what people will expect from that computing platform label.

By Jeremy Keith (Flickr: Device pile) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Jeremy Keith [CC-BY-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Technical features are important.

But most tech advantages these days are short lived as each device maker plays a never-ending game of spec leapfrog. Most average business or consumer device users (as opposed to us enthusiasts) long ago lost track of the relative benefits of chip architectures, or even know how fast their device’s microprocessor is, how much RAM is onboard or how many gigabytes of storage it has.

Go ahead. Ask your non-techie relatives.

I bet in almost all cases,  the most you’re likely to elicit on device specs of purchases made in the past handful of years is the operating system. Nothing else will be top of mind, because whatever it is, there is “just enough” speed. Or memory. Or storage.

With the naming of Windows 10 and the re-badging of some features of MSN and Bing, Microsoft may be trying to address platform perception issues. And I piled on in a recent talk comparing strengths and weaknesses of Apple, Google, and Microsoft platforms during the BYTE FY15 training event for several hundred Microsoft staff that work with its hardware partners.

In tech, what’s tangible is being overrun by the intangible. That experimental top-level labeling decision is steered and subject to the Cluelessness of the Crowds. So here is my highly subjective, cognitive-load friendly list of three perceived pros and cons for each device platform brand. Like many things in life, these perceptions – and history – often trump reality.

Apple (iOS) devicesiPodnanowatch3

Why they win:

Simplicity. A seamless user experience bordering on an endorphin high.

Cool factor. Often, buyers tend to start panting for an Apple device (like the Los Angeles school district with iPads), then will work out what they are able to do with it.

Ecosystem. Strong vertical integration, both of software and across devices, not unlike a fast-food upsell: “Would you like an Apple Watch with that?”

Why they lose:

Ecosystem. Strong vertical integration turns off buyers who avoid vendor lock-in, proprietary connectors and file formats (like, uh, me).

Hardware emphasis. Leading with design masks non-Apple software developers and any variety of choices.

Tenuous cool factor. Once you’ve got it, you can lose it, as Apple already once did post-Steve Jobs in the 1990s.

Apple’s origin story explains a lot of its current appeal: that of a feisty underdog to then-dominant IBM. The original design for the mass-produced Apple II line allowed anyone to flip open and easily modify the computer, not only a technician. As Apple shifted toward a consumer electronics ethos, technology for “the rest of us” became “for everybody.”

Google (Chrome) devicesChromebook

Why they win:

Price. Chromebooks begin at $199, a price some buyers (such as those in schools) consider make them almost disposable compared to standard laptops.

Simplicity. Everything is built in, basic productivity software is “free,” updates and protection are automatic, and some popular Android apps now run on Chrome.

Uniformity. Mass deployment and management is easy in education and business.

Why they lose:

Google itself. Google almost always seems to be under fire, somewhere, for concerns about privacy, ad-serving, and behavior tracking.

Cloud. Chromebooks (and Nexus Android devices linked to Google services) rely on web services that require good connectivity and strong data security.

Vendor lock-in. What Google gives in software, it can easily change or take away as many occupants in the Google Graveyard can attest.

Google’s origin, though, is key to its image. It was borne of the Internet, and its hardware devices are just gateway drugs for increased addiction.

Microsoft (Windows) devicesMSKinOne

Why they win:

Boring. Boring is good, if what you have has become the industry standard. Connectors, file formats, and other technologies are established and relatively safe due to the ballast of a huge installed base.

Software choices. Buying Windows is like buying a Swiss Army knife with far more functions than you are likely to use (let alone understand), with application variety that goes way beyond an app marketplace.

Nadella factor. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has brought excitement and energy to Microsoft’s image, a window of increased “what will he do next?” attention. I wouldn’t underestimate this.

Windows95logoWhy they lose:

Boring. The sheer number of Microsoft hardware partners tends to make it hard for any individual innovative device to shout “look at me!” in that crowd, and contributes to a numbing sense of sameness. Quick: Picture a typical Google Chromebook user. An Apple iOS user. Now, a Windows user. Yeah.

Me-too-ness. It’s a cliché: others innovate, Microsoft popularizes. While there are counter-examples (Xbox, which notably didn’t trumpet the Microsoft brand at launch), it’s hard to get over me-too reinforcements.

Missteps. Windows ME. Windows Vista. Windows 8 (original release). Kin mobile phones. Zune media players. Noooooo.

Microsoft’s underlying device appeal goes back to its origin story, too: desktop – that is, a physical  office desk – operating systems and productivity applications, with everything local and under direct control. What gives Windows platform devices stability also seems to suck the joy out of them.

So back to our hypothetical. What major computing brand should you slap on that new device?

Or, perhaps more important: What should each of these three major computing platforms label their next device that breaks pre-conceived notions?

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