History, Like DNA, Repeats, But It's Always Different
While many of the elements of 1981 are present, quite a few manufacturers trying to enter into a growth field, I think it differs in some very clear ways.
When IBM entered into the personal computer market it gave an endorsement to the idea of the personal computer at business. The IT departments were quite relieved that here, finally, was a company with grown-ups that was going to last. PCs in the 1980s were expensive and when the clone manufacturers came along a few years later, the people with the money, businesses, were running PC-DOS and would not have tossed over the (also expensive) software they had bought in order to buy a desktop PC with an allegedly better operating system. When the clones arrived, and manufacturers were fighting on price, that was the day MS-DOS became essential and went from doing well to winning big.
So today, we have a similar constellation: consumers and manufacturers. But we have new stars. Google, giving away an operating system because its bread and butter is maximizing network traffic and harvesting the relations and visits in order to provide an accurate demographic to advertisers. They still get what they need when I use my iPhone with Google apps installed.
Patents are another "star" in the firmament. Microsoft extracts revenue from manufacturers using Android via patent enforcement. So two major players get money when you use the competitor's os.
We also have carriers who may interpose between the user and the apps.
Phones are cheap: this isn't a battle over businesses that spills into the consumer market because people have started to take work home and have to run the same software which generally means the same os and processor as the workplace. (The thinning separation between work time and not-work time being an emergent consequence of the PC.)
Unlike 1981, everyone has phones and computers, we are talking about selling enhanced phones. We have services delivered in os-agnostic ways. It is difficult to imagine how another phenomenon of the 1980s that was killed by Windows in the 1990s, the SGI workstation, would manifest in the smartphone world.
I think it was the application install base that anointed MS-DOS as the 1990s dawned. Apple did well because of the desktop publishing advances of 1987 or so. Microsoft, of course, went into overdrive when it finally delivered a graphical interface that was usable with Windows 95, and the application writers bought in. Hardware was making rapid advances and the consumer was quite happy to chuck WP5.1 in order to run Word95 on a system that was massively faster.
In 2010, though, smartphone apps are priced like candy bars. When the two year contract is up, do the apps, and experience familiarity and loyalty, keep the consumer on their platform or do they move from platform to platform without worrying about re-buying key apps?
We are also overlooking that the tech consumer is now all over the world and not just in the US and Europe. Being a typical parochial American, I am ill-equipped to speculate. Being atypical, I shall not, but it's another level of complexity not found 30 years back.
So, I don't know. I appreciate that the patterns have clear similarities. I guess I'm not ready to say that, of course, it's Rocky IV, only this time Balboa is running around Russia and not Philadelphia.