Saturday, December 20, 2003

Telirati Newsletter #28

Looking back at 1998, before the launch of OS X, Apple was, once again, caught trying to reshape strategy on the fly. But, despite all the last-minute course corrections, and as I predicted, Steve Jobs would re-emerge as a force in computing.

Now, however, Linux has become an even more prominent force in computing. If Jobs can position Apple relative to Linux and Open Source software in general, he has an opening for a true breakout in the market.

Telirati Newsletter #28: Steve Jobs, The Most Dangerous Man Alive

A wise man once said “Never say ‘Watch this!’ before throwing a Frisbee.” Steve Jobs evidently listened to this sage, and is reaping the rewards with the iMac. A craze of comparable magnitude to the Volkswagen Beetle revival has greeted the iMac. (Even though the iMac bears a disturbing resemblance to a deservedly forgotten vehicle, the BMW Isetta.)

Had Jobs explained what the iMac was intended to be, it would have been counted a failure, or at least a bunt, when it was delivered. The iMac was supposed to be the first of a breed of machines running a simplified Mac OS, so that Mac OS could live on as an OS for PDAs after Rhapsody took over as a desktop and server OS. Instead, the iMac is heralded as, and deservedly so, a brilliant repackaging of the original Macintosh idea.

In Newsletter #10 I posited that turning Mac OS into an NC or PDA OS would fail, because it is devilishly hard to drop baggage once it has been acquired. So it was. But the iMac is a success anyway. And so likely will be the revised Rhapsody strategy. Instead of relegating the Mac OS to PDA and NC duty, and attempting to convert ISVs to a new religion, Mac OS X will seduce rather than command converts with a high degree of compatibility with current applications and a powerful new set of technologies for creating new applications.

It is Mac OS X that makes Steve Jobs the Most Dangerous Man. With OS X, Jobs is the only competitor to Microsoft with a full suite of technologies, across the full span of market segments to be able to go to a corporate IT user and say “I have a better way, on the desktop, in the servers, over the network, for the Internet, than Microsoft.” Sun doesn’t have it. Novell doesn’t have it. IBM doesn’t have it. And Linux, while it has many advantages in creating cheap, simple Internet servers, isn’t even close to having it.

What has Steve Jobs got? He has got:

An installed base: Millions of happy Mac users now have a reason not to give up and go Windows. The iMac and succeeding machines will keep these users in place and grow their numbers to give Apple plenty of time to release OS X.

Momentum: The success of iMac and the likely success of follow-ons means that Apple will launch OS X in an environment of expansion and not crisis. Contrast this with Novell: No matter how good the next Novell OS release is, Novell is, at best, fighting a rearguard.

An OS that can compete with NT: Remember what I said in Newsletter #10 about the difficulty of dropping baggage? How many years ago did Steve Jobs figure that using UNIX as a starting point would lead more quickly to a capable system that would be better and cleaner than the Mac? Well, he’s finally near to done: Mac OS X is comparable to NT in almost every way that matters. And it is also the only UNIX that has successfully morphed into something my mother could use.

A user interface technology: Apple’s Mac user interface is the only alternative to Windows that has attracted a significant number of ISVs. This fact alone means Apple stands alone as a possible effective direct competitor to Microsoft. The OpenStep-based UI technology in OS X is a credible claimant to call itself the most advanced UI technology available.

An object technology: Open Step, or whatever they are calling it these days, is an object-oriented application framework. Plus it has distributed and component capabilities that make it, and the Objective C language system, roughly (though certainly not completely) equivalent to COM on the NT platform. Like COM, the object technology in Mac OS X is pervasive (unlike CORBA) and used throughout the system. This is currently the weakest point of Apple’s appeal to corporate customers, but it is a beginning.

I am not ignoring the fact that this is the same Steve Jobs who offed his OS licensees. Apple may find it is still too little, too late, and there are too few allies available. Implementing a real threat to Microsoft might involve merging with one of more companies that have a corporate installed base of UNIX systems, and migrating those customers to OS X servers. Do you see anyone else in this position?

Copyright 1998 Zigurd Mednieks. May be reproduced and redistributed with attribution and this notice intact.