Apple’s risky business

Analysts paint a gloomy picture for Apple again, but are they looking at the same company?

I read a lot for my work. I inevitably run into material, such as the SCO Group's lawsuit against IBM, that makes me bang on my desk. Not only is it bad karma, it’s unforgivably bad "lawyering" -- the filing document contains so many factual errors that I could make a career out of refuting it item by item. I also ran into a story in a business publication I generally respect, warning Apple that it faces an uncertain future if it doesn’t innovate soon.

For some analysts, I predict a bright future writing horoscopes and fortune cookie truisms. Is Apple really in danger because it hasn’t made a major new product announcement in the past 30 days? If that’s true, the industry is on a tighter release schedule than I thought. There is no lack of innovation at Apple; most competitors fare poorly by comparison. Apple is sticking to its message (dare I say “vision"?) with such focus that it drives some paid observers crazy. A steady, consistent drive to push technology forward does not make headlines.

Apple’s consistency drives me crazy sometimes, too. When I saw the announcement come across the wires that Microsoft was buying Connectix, the supplier of the PC emulator for Mac OS X, I thought that spelled big trouble for Cupertino. What if Microsoft shuts down the only avenue Mac users have for running Windows applications? I fired off a note to Apple’s public relations office, which responded with a characteristic, and in this case, appropriate shrug. Then I read a piece in The Register (www.theregister.co.uk ) that speculated Microsoft bought Connectix not to punish Apple, but to add Windows virtual machine software to its own arsenal. Bingo. The number of Mac users who want to run Windows software is scant at best, and software emulation of the x86 CPU (though Connectix does as well with it as any could) is an ugly way to manage it.

Apple failed in its previous attempts to capture a share of the general computing market. There are innumerable technical and marketing-related reasons, but I place some of the blame on Apple’s determination to make Windows run on its platform. There were software emulators and PC-on-a-card units that plugged into the Mac. As a result, reviewers who didn’t “get” the Mac (I was among them) wound up rating it partly on its skill at emulating a PC. This time around, Apple is soft-selling Virtual PC. If it goes from a soft-sell to a no-sell because Microsoft snapped up Connectix, it will probably do the Mac more good than harm.

That’s a case where Apple’s best course of action is to do nothing. Let’s look at an example of doing exactly the right thing when business sense seemed to dictate another course. Apple’s high-powered machines are too loud. InfoWorld’s P.J. Connolly noticed that about the first-generation XServe. That quality of my lab’s dual-processor Power Mac G4 has me in the habit of putting it to sleep when I answer the phone. I use the machine as a server, so I don’t know OS X Server as well as I should. Apple’s first response was a patch to the operating system that caused the variable-speed cooling fans to run a little more quietly. Now Apple has taken the incredible step of offering existing Power Mac owners the chance to swap out their power supplies and fan for much quieter units. The cost to customers is $20.

Mind you, the system’s original fans are not faulty in any way, they’re just not designed for quiet operation. Most PC components aren’t designed for that either. I have a dual-processor Xeon server in my lab that requires hearing protection. The Power Mac G4 is quieter without the upgrade than the latest Athlon XP desktop I’m using. But I think Apple is on target with this swap campaign. It certainly hits home with me. I have hearing trouble that makes computer noise painful. As more people compute from home and share office space with powerful computers, everyone will want them to be quiet. I’m hopeful that, in time, quiet will mean cool, and cool will mean low power. When silent, cool, efficient computers become the norm, I’ll have one less issue to harp about.

What else is Apple getting completely right that the rest of the world thinks it’s getting wrong? At the risk of telegraphing future columns (but leaving the details as homework for curious readers), my list includes X11, Safari, IDE storage, 802.11g, the 17-inch PowerBook, iLife, .Mac, and client-side Java. What do I think Apple’s getting wrong? The exclusive deal with Sony Ericsson on syncable mobile phones, developer training, and documentation, and the lack of a strategy by Apple to get hardware vendors to create OS X device drivers come to mind. There is plenty more in both categories.

I’ll close this week with an observation and a suggestion. I’ve made an effort to avoid writing about Apple too often in InfoWorld, lest readers get the impression that’s all I care about. I frequently find Apple to be a good metaphor for what’s going on in the tech industry. More than most companies I deal with, Apple is willing to take huge risks to respond to and evolve the markets it serves. I disagree, and sometimes vehemently, with some of the choices Apple makes. But there is always something to learn from its choices.

It helps me to use Apple as an anchor point for discussions on broader topics, such as this week’s column on innovation and putting customers before the press. I realize that relatively few InfoWorld readers are making widespread use of Apple in their organizations, and it’s not my job or intention to convert anybody. But I suggest that it might be a mistake to tune out when you see “Apple” in an InfoWorld headline, whether it’s my story or a colleague’s. Apple is a company to watch -- even if you’re certain you’ll never buy anything it sells -- because studying Apple (and Sun, and AMD, and trend-setters I point out here) will help you understand the rest of the industry so much better.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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