Book Review: Digital Wars by Charles Arthur

Between my day job, my writing for the Petri IT Knowledgebase, and attempting to have a personal life, I rarely get time to read outside of a vacation. However, I recently started attending and presenting at a roadshow for my employer around the island of Ireland, where this series events is punctuated by mindless driving on boring motorways that needed to be filled by entertainment.

I was switched on to Audible, Amazon’s audio book company, a couple of years ago when they sponsored the Windows Weekly podcast, which is hosted by Paul Thurrott and Mary-Jo Foley. I’ve used these long commutes as an opportunity to listen to books. I purchased a new book, Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet by Charles Arthur last week, and I’ve listened to just over half of it over a few days of travelling.

About Audible

I used to read a lot but a full life means that when I hit the sack, I’m usually snoring within minutes. There’s little time to read outside of those occasions when I can sit by a pool on vacation, or I’m sitting in doing some remote photography waiting for some wildlife to do what it does. I commute to work and from time to time, I’m sent on the road for a few weeks to meet as many customers as possible to evangelize about things like Microsoft Azure or the end of life of Windows Server 2003/R2 as I am on this current roadshow.
On my normal commute, I’ll listen to podcasts but they run out quickly when the miles clock up. I had thought of buying digital books before I heard of Audible, but they were way too expensive. Then I heard about Audible. You can start a subscription for free, which gets you one book and depending on the plan you choose, you can get one or more credits per month, which you can accrue. Each credit gives you one free book purchase, which is yours to keep. For example, I am on the Gold plan, costing $14.95 per month, which gives me one credit per month. If I buy a book, I either pay for it (30% off), or I use one of my credits and get the book for “free.”
The narrators are usually actors with engaging voices. From time to time, you’ll get a famous TV or movie actor. Other times you’ll get some narrator that you’ve never heard of before. You’ll find that you’ll recognize the protagonists from the acted voices. The actors are usually retained to read an entire series of a book — Petyr Baelish sounds particularly creepy in the A Song of Ice and Fire in the Game of Thrones series.

Charles Arthur’s Digital Wars

I’ve only listened to a couple of industry history books such as this before. I was tempted by the concept of this book. It starts at an interesting time in our industry. Microsoft is in the midst of an anti-trust investigation, and there is a threat of Microsoft being split into two companies. Apple is nearing bankruptcy and has had to be bailed out by Bill Gates after a failed experiment of letting OEMs sell Mac clones with the Mac OS, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin are about to rent their first office after leaving Stanford University.

Digital Wars by Charles Arthur. (Image Credit: Amazon)
Digital Wars by Charles Arthur. (Image Credit: Amazon)

I thought I had a good knowledge of this period, but I was wrong. The author, Charles Arthur, a tech journalist and contributing writer for The Guardian digs deep, using his own notes and articles, materials from other sources, and interviews with numerous insiders to reveal just exactly how Apple reinvented itself; how Google went from a “What? Won’t that make you blind?” to a verb; and how Microsoft missed opportunities, made mistakes, and didn’t seize available opportunities.
The book, so far, has followed two tracks. The phenonomical rise of Google is contrasted with the flailing efforts of the unfortunately named Windows Live Search, the predecessor to Bing. Google had a simple vision to make search quick and easy. At the time, broadband was used by few, and every search engine was a “content rich” portal filled with advertising. We even hear the unfortunate story of how the CEO of one of the then dominant rivals laughed at Google’s concept for a simple, efficient search, saying that it made no sense to present the best results on the first page because it led to view advert views by the user. Google started small and with a few wise partnerships, the company was forced to grow and evolve quickly. This was possible because they were a small and agile startup, unlike the much bigger Microsoft with internal rivalries. Google created whole new ways of evaluating web content, rating pages, caching indexes, and storing data. Revenue was earned with selective placement of adverts that were sold via automated auctions.
Eventually Microsoft woke up to the threat and launched a project to develop an alternative to Google. At the time, Bill Gates still had a technical role with the company and was relishing the opportunity to deploy a product of this scale. It was truly an engineer’s dream. Proposals were made internally and instead of availing existing acquisitions and possible partnerships, Steve Ballmer set Microsoft’s efforts back by ignoring the advice from his senior executives. By the time Bing was ready, Microsoft had lost the mindshare of consumers, and advertisers had little interest in spending budgets on a minority player.

Meanwhile, Apple was in trouble. They had learned that music was important to their customers, mainly because they lost a huge chunk of marketshare by not including CD burners in their latest models of Mac. Apple rationalized their range of products and decided to release one must-have music peripheral that would be an add-on to the Mac OS. Sales were good, and then Apple released iTune, and then added support for Windows PCs. Soon Apple’s iPod became the company’s biggest product. The stories of how Steve Jobs fooled the music industry into thinking iTunes would only sell one million songs per year, or how Apple got an exclusive on the smallest hard drive in the market, thus forcing rivals like Dell into selling much larger devices, or how Apples usability design process focuses on leaving things out rather than in (inspired by satellite design, apparently) are quite revealing. Apple didn’t want to sell in Best Buy, competing on feature lists and price. They wanted you to desire iPod because some movie star, athlete, or Oprah told you that you wanted it.
The carefully designed original Apple iPod was intended to be an accessory (Image Credit: Apple)
The carefully designed original Apple iPod was intended to be an accessory (Image Credit: Apple)

And Microsoft came up with PlaysForSure with DRM causing playback challenges, a mixed variety of vendors, software, drivers, and dependencies within Microsoft meaning that it didn’t actually play for sure. And of course, there was Zune. As the author writes, Microsoft wrote software and left it at that, while Apple chased the perfect consumer experience, where it was sure that enough people would pay a premium for it. The weird thing was that iPod was meant to be an add-on for the Mac, which would be the hub of the home entertainment experience.

There was no big vision for the iPhone or iPad. And now we have the news that the iPhone is Apple’s biggest product and the smartphone is the most used personal device, where this device serves as the center of most people’s lives. This is yet another lost opportunity for Microsoft because they were in the smartphone business long before Apple. It was something that could surf, use apps, play music and video, but Microsoft never made it something that people desired; my memory was that things like an XDA were the disappointing alternative to a Blackberry for business people.

The chunky and unattractive Dell DJ fared poorly against iPod. (Image Credit:
The chunky and unattractive Dell DJ fared poorly against iPod. (Image Credit:

I might not like Charles Arthur’s analysis of current market trends, but I’m really enjoying this book. As a tech nerd, it’s interesting to hear from insiders how Microsoft was capable of leading, but much smaller and more desperate companies got there first. We have seen Microsoft’s failed attempts at being Apple-esque (see Windows 8) and the realization that their customers are very different (see Windows 10). Could we see some history repeating itself? Google has sidelined Bing. Could Android and iPhone have already done the same to Windows Phone even before Windows 10 unifies the entire Microsoft ecosystem? My tip is that you read the book and make up your own mind.