Wired reported today that Apple’s stores will be moving to use the iTouch for roving checkout instead of the existing Windows CE-based devices in use today. I linked to this story in part for the entertaining Wired reader comments, particularly to the partisans of Apple and Windows that continue the division between the companies. Besides the entertainment value, this circumstance identifies two interesting themes: first, Apple and Microsoft have worked together and continue to innovate within the same, larger technology market (and neither is the consistent leader of the other as a result), and second, Apple gave the Windows CE devices a valiant try and elected to improve the process based on staff input (which is what healthy companies should do, even if it means using the competitions products to do it).
As to the former, Apple was not the first to have stores where people could come to buy their technology products. Gateway (remember them?) had stores throughout the U.S. in its heyday to sell its brand of personal computers. Gateway ultimately went under and was replaced by other vendors like Dell and HP (who notably do not have in-person stores). Apple added a twist to their stores, by also providing a walk-in help desk (the “genius bar” staffed by your kids who know way more than you about computers), and later, by implementing roaming check out staff with wireless credit card terminals. And, if you have ever been to the Apple store in New York City, they also have some cool architecture (a glass building with most of the store underground, utilizing the natural light from the outside to expand the space downstairs).
This year, Microsoft started its own line of stores, having recruited former Apple staff to open them. Microsoft originally had licensed Apple’s initial graphical user interface for its own Windows 1.0, and then later expanded and changed the interface over the last 25 years to the interface we have today in Windows 7. On the other hand, Microsoft has led (because of enormous market pressure) on improving security to its operating systems. Apple still does not have the kinds of business enterprise products that Microsoft has developed over the years, like SQL Server and Exchange. And one might argue that Microsoft’s Office Suite is still the better product compared to the tools that Apple has developed, like Numbers (though I do use and like Apple’s Keynote for presentations, but PowerPoint has been around for far longer).
As to the performance improvement issue, I think Apple is right on to try something out (they have been using these Windows CE devices for over a year at their Towson store), and then see how they can improve them. My observation of these in the store was that they did need to be rebooted regularly and could be unreliable – especially when Apple first released the iPhone 3G. Whether Apple employees would hate on these just because they weren’t Apple (as one commentator on the Wired story suggested) is anyone’s guess. My opinion is that the employees had to use them every day, and were in the best position to say if they worked or not. Good for Apple to actually ask for input rather than just make a management decision at a conference table.