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How the Rise of Apple Is Just Like the Rise of Mammals

An afternoon in the National Museum of Natural History yields some unexpected connections.

The exceptional thing about Apple is not that it’s the most valuable consumer-facing brand in the world, that it has a market cap larger than Microsoft, or that its stock performance over the past decade bested Google. No, what’s different about Apple is that for a really long time—more than 20 of the 33 years it has been on this earth—it was a niche player.

Apple’s stock price, or the net biomass of mammals on earth for the past 200 million years?

And if we’re looking for historical analogs to Apple’s fantastical come-from-behind run-up in value and mindshare, we have only to look at ourselves.

For the first two-thirds of their existence on this planet, no mammal ever got much bigger or more ambitious than a modern-day rodent. They were niche players. For about 135 of the 200 million years they have existed, mammals lived in the shadow of the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs that had a death grip on all the available ecological niches in the tech ecosystem—mostly Microsoft—kept out other players through competitive exclusion. Competitive exclusion means, basically, that if someone’s already really good at being, for example, the top predator, there’s no room for anyone else to come in and assume that mantle.

Then something crazy happened—an asteroid strike, some climate change—and the dinosaurs, the largest creatures ever to walk the earth, were wiped out. In this analogy, it was the Internet, or the early days of the post-PC transition (e.g., the iPod) that eroded the lead of Microsoft. Of course, Microsoft is still with us, and this transition is far from complete—even the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out overnight, and plenty of their relatives are still with us today.

After that extinction event, all the advantages that Apple—and mammals—already possessed were suddenly useful. A high metabolism, good design, live birth, devices that “just work.” These things were present all along, but they were meaningless as long as something bigger and stronger was present to prevent a growth in the market share of Apple, or an expansion of the niches occupied by mammals.

Taken together, these forces explain how it’s possible that a company, or an entire class of animals, could spend so much time humming along in a tiny niche, and then achieve “overnight” success by deploying traits they had been developing all along.

This metaphor, imperfect as it is, says little about the future of Apple and consumer electronics in general. For that, we’ll have to look even deeper into the history of life on earth—the introduction of oxygen into the Earth’s atmosphere—and talk about a completely different company, namely Google. I’ll save that tale for tomorrow.

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