Apple's dead again

How does an irrelevant, struggling company keep delivering new technology?

Something about Apple Computer gets under journalists' skin. Every time the company goes two months without putting Steve Jobs on stage, magazine and online writers rush to proclaim Apple's demise. If Apple isn't dead, Linux and Windows make it irrelevant. As someone who takes the time to get to know every business-relevant product Apple puts out, I can attest that simply keeping up with Apple's mainstream innovation could be my full-time job. It isn't, and I wouldn't want it to be. Without the context gleaned from the use of competing and contrasting technology (and from forcing Apple products to do real work in a demanding heterogeneous environment), I would probably miss most of what makes Apple important, too.

On the software side, Apple recently released version 10.2.5 of its OS X client and server operating systems, the Java 1.4.1 run-time and development platforms, and a major update to its Safari Web browser. Each of the OS X updates is substantial, exceeding the scope of Microsoft's Service Packs because the OS X updates include fixes and enhancements for Apple's large collection of standard applications and services. The same OS X automatic update mechanism (which never installs anything without your explicit consent) pulls in upgrades for optional Apple software you have installed.

Java 1.4.1 took a long time to deliver, fostering the opinion that Apple no longer views client-side Java as a priority. Some readers wrote me to complain that bugs make the new Java release unstable. If these things are true, it's a real loss. There is no environment that showcases desktop Java as well as the Mac; Linux and Windows don't come close. IBM's Eclipse Java development environment has a new native OS X edition (Version 2.1) that works beautifully. Borland's JBuilder 8 will install on OS X with Java 1.4.1, using tweaks detailed on the Borland community forum.

Dismissed by some as an experimental thumb-of-the-nose to Microsoft, the Safari Web browser is picking up features and improving site compatibility at an unusually rapid pace. There are plenty of user-targeted changes such as tabbed browsing. The excitement for me is watching the underlying technologies, dubbed WebCore, take shape. WebCore will expose Safari's lightning-quick, standards-savvy dynamic HTML renderer and a fast, compact JavaScript interpreter to OS X developers. The complete prerelease WebCore source code is always downloadable from Apple's Darwin site.

All of the announced additions to Apple's client and server product line are now shipping. I've been abusing the 12-inch PowerBook long enough to share my opinions. The 17-inch PowerBook and second-generation XServe are more recent arrivals that I'll discuss in future columns as I integrate them and dig out the relevant innovations.

The new PowerBooks are wrapped in tough, scratch-resistant aluminum instead of the trademark titanium. The metal skin on both of the new machines is not a cosmetic veneer; it is the chassis. These are not fragile plastic boxes that can't take the rigors of the road. These are sturdy machines that I wedge into overstuffed carry-on bags without concern. I found the 12-inch PowerBook less impressive than I had hoped, with one exception: The keyboard is an absolute dream. I have never typed on anything so comfortable and quiet. The rest of the machine is a mixed bag. The 12-inch LCD is not up to Apple's high standards. I put the 12-inch PowerBook next to a new compact PC notebook, the Fujitsu LifeBook S2000, which has a 13.3-inch display. The LifeBook's screen is bright and contrasty. Next to it, the 12-inch PowerBook's display looks washed out and unevenly lit.

Another surprise with the little PowerBook is heat. Apple had to cram a lot of components into a tiny space, including an optional slot-loading DVD burner. There isn't much room for the heat to dissipate. In addition to radiating down, as all notebooks do, the 12-inch PowerBook's heat radiates up. The left side of the palm rest gets hot after a long period of continuous use. Apple might argue that this machine isn't built for continuous use, so it won’t get hot during normal use. Flip it open, take a few notes and put it back to sleep. But watch any PowerBook user --they never turn their machines off. When they're not working on them, they play and explore. There are endless nooks and crannies in OS X that even nongeeks are moved to discover. All Macs should be built for constant use.

If the 12-inch PowerBook is proof that even Apple can’t overcome all design challenges, the larger PowerBook is a study in successful customer-focused design. Every one of its new features is something top-end business and creative notebook users would ask vendors to give them. The display is big enough to use instead of a desktop monitor. The Gigabit Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports enable extremely fast connections to local resources when users are in the office. AirPort Extreme provides a turbocharged wireless connection inside the building, full Wi-Fi compatibility for public wireless networks, and Bluetooth for Internet access and data transfer from mobile devices.

The 17-inch PowerBook’s keyboard legends light from underneath in the dark. It turns on automatically when the room is dark. It sounds like a gimmick until you take note of how often the light comes on. I habitually tipped my 15-inch PowerBook’s display down to shine on the keys in low light. When the keyboard lights up, the display dims, both for the sake of your eyes and out of consideration for the people sitting near you in that darkened meeting room. It is a small detail. It meshes with some dozens of other little details that Apple designed into its hardware and software just to make computers more useful.

I’m looking forward to the Worldwide Developer’s Conference in June, where the next major crop of Apple technologies is expected to debut. Tracking the innovation coming from this dead, irrelevant company is wearing me out.

If Apple is dead, it’s the most productive corpse I’ve ever seen.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform