Last fall, the world of big technology was significantly dominated by a few companies. Apple (AAPL 3.30%) and Google (GOOGL 3.79%) formed the smartphone duopoly that seemed untouchable, and Samsung was a hardware manufacturer that was challenging Apple for sales, but appeared to be the Android poster-child. Fast forward a few months and the landscape looks incredibly different, as BlackBerry (NASDAQ: BBRY) fights to survive, Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and Microsoft (MSFT 2.32%) have mounted a serious challenge in the smartphone space, and Facebook (FB 0.97%) is threatening the status quo in how we interact with our smartphones. And that's just in smartphones.
Samsung is developing a new operating system that hopes to challenge Android, it has moved into Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) retail locations to challenge Apple's retail model, and it has put together an ecosystem that allows it to become a single solution for smartphones, tablets, laptops and home entertainment. Microsoft has released its own hardware, become a major player in cloud computing, and upped its game in everything it touches -- video games, music, enterprise solutions and more. Intel (INTC 1.84%), largely as it sees PC sales get hit, is working with Samsung on the release of the Tizen operating system and has upped its game in the server space to stave off its own stumble. These are just some of the example of shifts that have taken technology to the next level recently.
What's really changed?
It's certainly reasonable to argue that technology is always in a state of violent transition, with what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" driving us forward. The concept states that the creation of new technologies must, by definition, destroy old ones. The process is a fluid one, and it's always going on, particularly in the area of high tech.
So if this process is constant, you ask, what's different about right now? The answer is simultaneously "nothing" and "quite a bit." The process does march unstoppably forward, but there are always events that create little accelerations that can't be denied. These events are not always obvious, but they change perception in ways that are hard to escape.
If you're wondering what has changed this time -- and knowing that I will receive violent disagreement to this argument -- the introduction of Windows 8 has made a sweeping difference in how tech looks at the world. Apple changed the world with the introduction of the iPhone and then the iPad. The touchscreen as a way to interact with a computer was revolutionary and deserves credit as being the spark that got things started.
The reason Windows 8 is so important, however, is that it is an acknowledgement that the very core of personal computing is changing. The ink that's been spilled about why Windows 8 is terrible is copious to be sure, but it's still at the center of the conversation. A few years ago, Microsoft was barely mentioned. The OS may be the product people love to hate, but it has propelled Mr. Softy back into the limelight. Furthermore, because being the subject of discussion is not enough alone, Windows 8 has had a sweeping impact.
Nokia's Windows Phones have become serious contenders in several markets, making the battle for third place even more interesting, and that's before Tizen gets into the game this summer. While the Surface RT and Surface Pro haven't been huge sellers, they've spawned an explosion of Windows-based tablets and hybrids that has opened up the space. You now can choose between iOS and Android with flash memory, or a Windows machine with more complete capabilities. Hate Windows 8 all you want, but this is the point, and it's working. Microsoft phones and tablets didn't exist a few months ago, and now they're in the thick of the conversation.
Without going into a discussion of each of the technologies mentioned, suffice it to say that advances are numerous and significant. Big tech has returned to the Wild West, and the prizes have gotten larger and the stakes higher. The ultimate beneficiary is the consumer, and the savvy and, yes, Foolish investor finds ways to benefit from this new, open landscape.