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Apple’s playing in the big league now

Apple’s playing in the big league now

It’s easy to get sucked in by Apple’s “wow” factors — the appealing design of Mac hardware and the unparalleled enthusiasm that CEO, Steve Jobs, injects into everything he pitches. Apple’s combination of strengths adds up to a great PR strategy, and Apple has a compelling technology story to tell. That has always brought the tire kickers and window shoppers out in droves.

Now that money is slowly returning to the wallets of IT buyers, the showy schemes that turned heads early in 2003 may not be enough to raise Apple’s share of the corporate market. It will all come down to engineering and building relationships with partners and customers. If Apple can’t hit both targets squarely, it will get smothered by its ruthless competitors.

Recent announcements firm up Apple’s leadership in engineering. Even if you’re not swayed by Apple’s efforts, you have to admit that Apple’s tech wizards are giving it everything they’ve got. Their technology is sure to attract a lot of attention, but will Apple’s approach reel in the fickle IT audience? The question that remains unanswered is whether IT is willing to bite.

Putting Technology First

At its Worldwide Developers Conference (at which I spoke as an independent journalist) in San Francisco in June, and at IDG’s Macworld Creative Pro Conference & Expo in New York in July, Apple laid out a sumptuous buffet of new technologies, with many pointed straight at IT.

The next major release of the OS X operating system bears the fierce codename Panther. It is a huge update that, according to Apple, makes OS X the finest blend of standards-based Unix and unique usability enhancements of any commercial operating system.

The next desktop Mac, the 64-bit Power Mac G5, was unveiled with an uncharacteristically boastful tag, “the world’s fastest PC”. This claim has not gone unchallenged — indeed I’m on record questioning both Apple’s testing methodology and its categorisation of the Power Mac G5 as a personal computer. However, later independent tests by NASA’s Langley Research Centre show that the Power Mac G5 outperforms Pentium 4 and Xeon systems on several tests. And Apple is certainly free to call its new workstation a PC if it chooses.

Apple’s new Xcode programming environment is key to drawing new developers into writing Mac software. Xcode improves OS X’s standard set of tools, originally developed for the NeXT system, by adding a great many modern features, particularly in the editor, help engine, and debugger. The iSight FireWire Webcam and the iChat AV instant messaging client offer affordable, high-quality, point-to-point videoconferencing.

These fresh announcements follow quickly on the heels of several other milestones, including the shipment of Xserve RAID, Final Cut Pro 4.0, the 12-inch and 17-inch PowerBook G4 and the redesigned dual 1.33GHz Xserve.

Gathering all of these developments together leads to some fascinating conclusions. First, Apple is shovelling revenue directly into R&D at a time when tech companies are nursing their cash piles, filing lawsuits, or declaring bankruptcy in lieu of innovation.

Second, this latest product push respects current customers. Rather than de-emphasise existing systems in favour of the technology in Panther and the Power Mac G5, Apple is ensuring that all of its software runs well on established hardware.

Third, the company’s efforts target traditional and new constituencies equally. The usability and aesthetic enhancements to the Panther client OS will grab the fancy of desktop and notebook users across the board. Panther Server sports a huge assortment of new services, administrative tools, and open source hooks, including the BSD Ports collection and a development interface to the Safari browser. All of this, plus Xcode and the JBoss J2EE server, adds up to a hearty embrace for Unix developers and administrators.

The Server Value Equation

Apple is testing an imaginative way to blend power with value: Price hardware to maintain margins that support Apple’s high manufacturing and distribution costs, but bump the customer value way up with software. By Apple’s estimation, bundling an unlimited-user OS X server license with the Xserve rack server amounts to a $US1000 rebate on the hardware’s price (Apple’s retail price for OS X Server is $US999). For shops that need more than the out-of-the-box configuration provides, Macs have plenty of alternatives to the standard configuration. All current Macs, not just Xserve, will boot from CD-ROM or DVD, internal hard disk, Xserve RAID, FireWire, or a distant network server.

The addition of Xserve RAID to Apple’s hardware line may be the most important factor affecting Apple’s IT credibility. Dual FC (Fibre Channel) connectivity, standards conformance, and full redundancy place Xserve RAID in the same category as more expensive storage units from Sun, HP and IBM, among others. Multi-unit storage-management software is not a costly option; it’s included. That’s a bit unusual considering Xserve RAID, stuffed with 2.5TB of storage, is priced at $US11,000.

Paucity of Partners

Apple’s partnerships, however, need work; there are still not enough applications for OS X, and an even more serious dearth of add-on hardware. But Apple does set itself apart in its attentive attitude toward customers. Apple maintains an automated channel for security patches and bug fixes, provided at no cost. Finding and installing multiple new fixes, or grabbing all the fixes to date, is either fully automated, a one-click affair, or a one-line scriptable command from Unix. Automatic fixes are applied not only to the operating system, but to optional software installed on the machine.

IT isn’t used to paying attention to vendor involvement with the consumer market. It took a long time for Apple to overcome its reputation as a consumer electronics outfit, and that perception still affects IT’s attitude toward Apple. But there is no confusing the built-like-a-tank Xserve and Xserve RAID with the iPod, or indestructible metal-clad PowerBooks with shiny plastic iBooks. Obsessive attention to build quality is common to all of Apple’s hardware and software.

We don’t assume that Apple will come out the winner when it’s put under IT’s microscope. But we strongly advise IT to look at Mac clients, Xserve products, and Panther without prejudice. Apple is playing in the big league now, and it can’t succeed with only a stage show and a slick press kit.

Apple can redefine the standard for quality engineering, cross-product consistency, and commitment to customers. That will rattle not only other technology vendors, but IT as well. Disruption by innovation is a powerfully good thing.


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