For decades, Steve Jobs extolled the virtues of "building the whole widget"—in other words, designing and manufacturing a computer or a digital media player or smartphone as an organic whole, from the molecular materials of the hardware to the abstract bits and bytes of the software. The resulting products may not always have been as inexpensive or utilitarian as the standardized machines that ruled the PC marketplace, but they did always possess the svelte and winsome quality that Apple's loyal customers love with a passion.
Earlier this summer, Microsoft tried to make like Apple. The company had never itself built computers, out of deference to its many hardware partners, but on June 18, it revealed the results of a three-year secret project: a sleek and distinctive Windows tablet PC called the Surface. No mere iPad knockoff, the Surface is Microsoft's effort to build a "whole widget" of its own. It could well be the most beautiful and best engineered Windows device ever made. And it has bells and whistles that won't be easy for Apple to quickly mimic.
Google too has concluded that it can't really compete against the iPhone long term without its own end-to-end laptops, handsets, and tablets—hence its $13 billion acquisition of Motorola's cell-phone design and manufacturing business. The Motorola patent portfolio is valuable, to be sure, but Google wants to find a remedy to the fragmented world its Android architecture has fostered. The immense diversity of Android devices and generations of not-quite-compatible operating systems are beginning to look like liabilities, especially to app developers who don't want to have to support multiple versions of their own products.
So with Google and Microsoft as emerging widgeteers, might Apple finally be losing one of its historic advantages? Hardly.
At the annual World Wide Developers Conference held June 11 in San Francisco—the first big event since the death of Jobs—Apple demonstrated how its software prowess and skill at building interlocking digital platforms is the real game changer. How? By enlarging the definition of the whole widget. Increasingly, the Mac, iPhone, and iPad do not exist alone. Instead, Apple now offers a multidimensional, integrated ecosystem of devices held together by the centripetal force of iCloud. Apple's ideal customer, who likely owns at least one of each kind of product, can now share a single user identity, and core personal content and data can be viewed, consumed, used, or manipulated in familiar ways regardless of platform, with any changes or additions from one gadget instantly available on any of his other Apple gear.
In other words, Apple can now boast of providing a complete, coherent, and consistent digital experience at home, at work, in your car, and on the go—without any conscious effort on the part of the user. It's as if just at the moment when the visiting team finally steps up to the plate, they discover that the home team has moved the fences out, raised the pitcher's mound, and increased the distance between the bases. This is a different ball game.
Apple didn't announce some silver-bullet innovation at the WWDC to make all this possible, but instead described literally hundreds of new features and data services borne of software, many of which integrate how all its hardware products create, display, and share digital information. New versions of its Mac OS X and iOS for portable devices, along with much-improved data storage and remote processing services accessible via iCloud, will all come together in the next few months to markedly improve the quality of the entire Apple digital experience. Indeed, in many ways, improvements for the Mac will result in new capabilities for customers' existing iPhones and iPads with no new hardware required.
That is what you get when you enlarge the widget, and it doesn't even reflect the inevitable hardware improvements Apple is so famous for delivering like clockwork.
Microsoft and Google clearly understand this strategy. But Apple's ecosystem is the product of carefully nurturing smaller whole-widget ecosystems in such a way that they could be stitched together. Until recently, Microsoft has always tried to contort Windows to fit just about any class of hardware—using a one-size-fits-all strategy that has never played out well in non-PC devices. Google has tried to turn its browser software into a modest computer operating system, even as it took a completely different approach to Android smartphone software, and now is trying to make coherent architectures that are intrinsically different. Software can paper over just about any incompatibility, but a patchwork is not an ecosystem.
Apple's Tim Cook knows he has to be very careful not to over-standardize these individually dazzling devices. That's why it is unlikely that Mac OS X and iOS will ever subsume each other. The masterstroke is in using iCloud to knit them together, which hides the complexity of managing and not duplicating all those trillions of bits that each of us consume or manipulate every day. For today's digital consumer, syncing data, managing your access to it, and keeping it all straight and secure is the key to a powerful digital experience that we are only now beginning to grasp. Cook, an operations wonk who is a master of taming complexity, might even be better at figuring this out than Jobs was. And since Apple usually improves any screen it focuses on, a new and improved AppleTV platform could become an intriguing fourth species in the ecosystem.
So while it's certainly a bonus for consumers that Microsoft and Google have joined the game, Apple's lead could conceivably widen before they can even begin to play. There will be glitches as Apple moves into its post-Jobs era, but Microsoft and Google have so much to learn that the company has plenty of time to figure out how to live without Steve.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.