CNBC is predicting that Apple may top Microsoft as computing's most valuable firm. But that kind of success might be self-defeating.
As CNBC rightly acknowledges, Apple has a long way to go before it can dethrone Redmond, but estimates that the guard may change as sooner than anyone could have predicted just two years ago. While Windows still wins the marketshare battle with around 90% of all PCs, Apple's annual revenue has more than doubled in the last four years, while Microsoft is growing more slowly.
Thanks largely the the iPhone and iPod, Apple is selling more Macintoshes every quarter. But what is good for the brand and the company might end up being bad news for the customer. As TUAW says: "Using the example of Microsoft, getting too big too fast degrades your ability to offer quality service. It doesn't mean that their products are horrible, it means that you have to bring in more people to fill the gap--people who aren't necessarily the most qualified to help."
If anything TUAW understates the potential for a crisis of customer service. The more standard Apple hardware becomes, the more sought-after its software becomes. That means more people jailbreaking their iPhones, altering their netbooks to run OS X, or installing copies of Apple software on homemade hackintoshes. We know we've reached a critical point when a major corporation--Palm--is doing this very kind of hacking with the Pre, so that it can sync with iTunes.
All these non-standard installations creation major engineering headaches for Apple. It may not have to support all these weird Mac incarnations, but it has to close loopholes to prevent them from working. In the last few months, Apple has reportedly been trying to block out netbook hacks, Palm support, and shut down clone-maker Psystar. But it's impossible to stay ahead of the rabble, and Apple will have to deal with a burgeoning population of users who hack around with their stuff.
The end result is that the Apple ecosystem will have to become increasingly "closed" for the company to maintain the quality and the consistency of their user experience. And being "closed" is just what the company's detractors have latched onto as a fatal flaw. As TUAW notes, Apple has more to gain from staying the underdog.