Yes, Virginia, there is a future for the Mac

Yes, Virginia, there is a future for the Mac

Apple has not had a particularly brilliant year. That's not news. Any company that loses $US816 million dollars is not a happy company. Its sales are down, market share has slumped, its share price has dropped to a point where it has become a potential target for hostile takeovers. Reports of its imminent death have been common.

What might be news is that it hasn't been all bad. CEO Gil Amelio has gone through with a broad broom, dumping projects that were not showing signs of paying off, eliminating some overheads, strengthening partnerships and generally rebuilding the company as a leaner and more competitive organisation.

The company began to drift last year when Windows 95 was finally released. Apple had been dining out on the delays with that operating system for some time, and found itself unable to deal with the product as a competitive reality. Compounding the problem was the fact that Windows 95 delivered some features, such as pre-emptive multitasking, that Apple had promised in its own next generation OS - codenamed Copland. Copland still has not been released, and the most optimistic estimates have it arriving late in 1997.

In the past, when Apple found itself in trouble, it was able to fight back on the basis of its technological advantage. With Windows 95 in place and Copland perpetually delayed, that advantage is not so apparent. For many users, the Mac is now a step behind.

The challenge for Gil Amelio over the next year is to re-establish Apple as a technology leader. That means getting the Mac OS back on track, reinforcing technologies such as QuickTime that are already strong as cross-platform standards and building a basis upon which the Mac can recover some of its lost market share.

Creative licence

Key among Amelio's improvements is an aggressive approach to licensing the Mac OS. Where Michael Spindler, the former CEO of Apple, saw licensing as a necessary evil and opened the doors for potential clone makers to approach Apple, Amelio sees it as the great hope for the company. When Spindler left Apple, there were two active licensees; after less than a year under Amelio, there are at least nine, including Power Computing, Umax, Daystar Digital, Soyo, Tatung, APS Technologies, Akia and, of course, Motorola and IBM.

IBM and Motorola are Apple's partners in the PowerPC consortium and therefore have a great deal of investment in the future of the Mac. Accordingly, both companies have agreements with Apple which allow them to license the Mac OS to other vendors, who then don't need to deal with Apple directly. Soyo, Tatung and APS are among the companies whose licences were not obtained from Apple. IBM in particular is taking an aggressive stance with licensing, offering Mac licences at prices competitive with Windows 95 licences. IBM has not yet built its own Mac clones because of divisions within the company: as strong as the PowerPC division's investment in PPC and Mac technology might be, the IBM PC division's commitment to Intel and Microsoft is stronger.

Motorola is also taking advantage of its Mac licence by building a range of Motorola-branded Mac clones called StarMax, distributed in Australia by Polaroid Computing. These machines are based on the Tanzania board design, developed by Apple and built by Motorola as a low-cost alternative to using Apple's boards. Tanzania boards also allow users to connect some non-Mac peripherals, such as mice, keyboards, joysticks and monitors, to Mac-compatible machines. That should make Mac licensing more attractive to manufacturers who don't want to be tied to bundling expensive Mac peripherals with their machines.

Problem: regional Apple divisions (such as Apple Australia) get incentives from the company only for sales of Apple branded hardware. There are no incentives for promoting the sale of Mac OS by clone makers. This has led to a situation where Apple treats its licensees as competitors rather than allies, as in the stoush with Power Computing over retailing through existing Apple dealers.

What to expect: clone makers will find their own retail channels and will target markets where Apple is not already established. Already there are shops dedicated to the sale of Power Computing's clones, while Motorola and IBM will focus on the corporate market, where Apple's name does not carry the same clout as theirs.

Common hardware

Tanzania is one step along the way to the PowerPC Platform (PPCP), which used to be called the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP) and before that the PowerPC Reference Platform (PReP). The process of working out exactly what this platform consists of has been as complex as figuring out what it's called. The concept is a good one: one set of hardware specs, capable of running any operating system you choose, with any peripherals you like. As part of the consortium responsible for PowerPC, Apple and Motorola are strongly interested in developing PPCP as an alternative to the Intel stranglehold on hardware. IBM has its own difficulties to work through.

Although PPCP (in its many incarnations) has been mooted for years, it is only this year that it has been finalised. It is apparent to most observers that the delaying factor has largely been Apple, which tried to retain certain Mac hardware dependencies in the reference, presumably to make it easier to port Mac OS to the new hardware. Amelio's Apple has been more flexible, and compromised on these points.

Problem: Apple doesn't yet have a Mac OS that runs on PPCP. Mac OS has more to gain by being available on PPCP machines than Windows. If there is not a Mac OS to ship on those machines when they become available, it will be a massive lost opportunity. Akia and Tatung have expressed interest in building PPCP-based machines that run Mac OS as well as Windows NT; but Akia has said it will sell PPCP machines without the Mac OS if it is not available in time.

What to expect: the Mac OS development team will lose a great deal of sleep in getting the port finished in time. They'll be looking very tired by January.

Same time, next year

Will any of this make a difference? It's easy to get the impression that the market has written the Mac off as a lost cause with no hope of recovery. Expect Apple to start behaving more like a software company and supporting its licensees. In turn, expect to see clones that are more than competitive with Intel hardware on price. Expect machines with names like Motorola and IBM to show up in corporate environments running Mac OS. Then it will be harder to write off the Mac.

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