AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Getting down to business

AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Getting down to business

For the first time, Apple Computer’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) featured an enterprise IT track this year. It was a gamble; reading mainstream IT publications you get the clear message that the media and analysts are determined to keep Apple in its old box.

Writing off an inventive company is a convenient way to avoid the effort of understanding its work, a mistake I would have made if fellow writer, Jon Udell, hadn’t smacked me and said, “Look at what Apple’s doing.” I’m not surprised that analysts and writers haven’t tuned in yet.

Apple is a difficult company to understand not because its products are unfathomable -— each is quite easy to comprehend and describe. What takes effort is putting all of the pieces together into a coherent strategy. Apple doesn’t spell that out for anybody; that’s a reflection of Apple’s humble approach. WWDC’s enterprise IT track was well constructed and well attended, sometimes overflowing large rooms. I gave a brief enterprise perspective talk in the middle of Bud Tribble’s (Apple’s vice-president of software technology) overview of OS X Server that kicked off the IT track. Other Apple speakers covered topics such as Xserve administration, security and group policies, clustering, and management of large heterogeneous networks.

I scanned badges during the breaks and found that the IT sessions were attended not by curious Macophiles, but by people working in finance, distribution, services, e-business, telecommunications, and the like. IT people were there to network with one another, talk with Apple staff (who were plentiful and knowledgeable), and build a case for or against larger investments in Apple technology. I didn’t poll the crowd at the end to come to some conclusion about what IT attendees thought. But in my opinion, strongly reinforced by WWDC, Apple takes the enterprise market seriously.

Apple’s commitment was evident not only in its WWDC session content and in the specifications of its new 64-bit system, the Power Mac G5. The biggest convincer at the conference was the list of features Apple is cramming into the next release of OS X Panther Server. The combination of Xserve, Xserve RAID, and the Panther Server is worth the price if you use it solely as a Windows, Mac, and Unix file/print server, or a Windows domain controller. The same cost-benefit analysis applies to J2EE app server. Ditto for replicated directory services. And for single sign-on authentication for Unix and Windows. And for enterprise email. And for easy-to-manage, high-performance clusters. And distributed Unix applications. All of it is standards-based and thoroughly documented. The majority is published as open source.

There is a reason Apple has powerful IT friends, including IBM, Sun, Oracle, Sybase, and countless high-profile open source and commercial software projects. They’ve looked ahead in ways that outside observers like me cannot. Whatever they thought of Apple two years ago, they now see a partner with a consistent track record of listening to IT and giving it exactly what it needs. There aren’t a lot of business-grade Apple products, just the few that Apple knows can immediately reshape their targeted segments: high-end notebooks, clusterable rack servers, and networked storage. I no longer need to rely on intuition to predict Apple’s fate.

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