From USB-C iPhones to Internet Explorer: How tech giants leverage industry standards

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“Embrace and extend” (sometimes completed with “and extinguish”) was a phrase often used in the mid-’90s to describe Microsoft’s competitive strategy, even if it did not fully capture the reality of how it beat competitors. One of the most famous examples of it was how the company dealt with the rising threat of Netscape Navigator when that browser ruled the web. It embraced web standards and then launched proprietary extensions. While those extensions, e.g., ActiveX, didn't see broad adoption per se, Internet Explorer’s free availability and integration with Windows and other Microsoft products was enough to eventually cause Netscape’s demise. More recently, we’ve seen Microsoft take a similar approach with Teams versus Slack.

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Apple, too, has often applied an approach to emerging standards that had not been part of their roadmap: deride and defend. Many technologies that we take for granted today on Apple products, including the original USB standard, NFC, Qi wireless charging, and now USB-C as an iPhone interface were all once standards that Apple publicly criticized. However, once Apple adopts a standard, it tends not to move toward extinguishing. In fact, it often becomes a first-class supporter or advocate. 

Take USB, once a sluggishly growing standard in the PC world threatening Apple’s faster FireWire connections. But when Apple introduced the iMac, it used USB to replace several legacy connectors. And while Apple held onto FireWire for a few more years, USB ultimately won the day. Or consider Qi, some limitations of which Apple sought to address with the canceled AirPower charging pad. Apple extended the standard with its MagSafe implementation starting on the iPhone 12, but has opened up that extension to the Wireless Power Consortium for use in the Qi2 standard coming soon to non-Apple devices.

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More recently, as rumors rose that Apple would switch from Lightning to USB-C on the iPhone 15, so did speculation that it might reserve a tier of performance for products using the revenue-producing “Made for iPhone” certification. Instead, it offered unfettered support as it does on the MacBook and iPad. And it’s not just about hardware. Apple’s decision to adopt the RCS messaging standard fits well into the “deride and defend” school. While Apple has said it will retain iMessage as an Apple-only service, the company’s new commitment could ultimately shift iMessage to a platform for games and other non-core messaging feature as RCS advances to add features such as threaded replies, read receipts, emoji, reactions, and most importantly, end-to-end encryption across platforms.

Of course, every company can change its direction in a world where evolving standards and market dynamics can quickly alter the appeal of support. And not all of Apple’s adoption decisions are begrudging ones. The company was an enthusiastic adopter of Wi-Fi from the early days. And even after years advocating its HomeKit device networking approach, it has been a tentpole member (along with Amazon and Google) of the Matter consortium bringing interoperability to home network devices. But even when it resists an industry trend, the tech company that does the most to integrate its products can’t always isolate them.

Ross Rubin
Industry Analyst

Ross Rubin is the founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. Ross has been an industry analyst focusing on innovation in the technology, media and telecom markets for over 20 years. Prior to founding Reticle Research, he was executive director and principal analyst at The NPD Group, where he provided analysis on a wide range of technology topics and led research spanning devices, access and content. You can follow him on X and Threads @rossrubin.