What accounts for these companies' successes? Surely it's more than marketing prowess. In Apple's case, it's a string of transformational hits over a decade that stands as one of the greatest runs in corporate history. Since 2000, Apple has transformed the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, it shattered the phone business with the iPhone, and now it's threatening to remake the PC industry with the iPad.
Apple critics will disagree that these devices were as revolutionary as the tech press made them out to be—after all, there were many other music players on the market before the iPod, other smartphones before the iPhone, and lots of tablet computers before the iPad. But the best way to judge Apple's power in the market is to look at the actions of its rivals, many of whom follow Steve Jobs more closely than we tech reporters do.
Microsoft put out the Zune as way to compete with the iPod, opened retail stores to rival Apple's locations, and is now remaking its phone platform to take on the iPhone. And Microsoft isn't alone. Before the iPhone was launched, smartphones looked like the BlackBerry—hard keys, small screens. Afterward, the BlackBerry and other phones began to morph into the iPhone—the smartphone market is now dominated by devices with big, multitouch screens that run programs purchased from a centralized app store. The iPad is blazing a similar trail. Look at the BlackBerry PlayBook, the device that RIM unveiled this week. It's a 7-inch, touch-controlled tablet that runs a dedicated phone-like operating system. What does that remind you of?
Although the two companies are profoundly different, Google's great press arises out of its similar ambitions. Google is the most disruptive company in the industry; once or twice a year, it unveils a new product that cracks up our settled notions of tech and culture. This is true far beyond its search engine—look how Gmail remade Web e-mail, how Chrome encouraged rival browser companies to make their software speedier, or how Google Voice is helping to replace phone companies. Sure, not all of Google's innovations are hits—but even in its failures (Wave), Google displays a charming willingness to experiment that many of its rivals lack. The company's mission statement—"to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"—would sound corny, except that it has a demonstrated commitment to do just that. It is digitizing the world's books, has built a translation machine of uncanny accuracy, and can even track traffic patterns and predict when flu season is about to begin.
To be sure, these wonders don't mean that Apple and Google can do no wrong—they can and often do. But that's just one more reason to keep a close eye on them. Nobody knows what the world will look like in 2015. But given their recent track records, my best guess is that Apple and Google are inventing it now.