Apple: Worming into corporate IT

I feel obliged to give the company credit for the smart stuff--its entry into corporate IT.

I rarely hesitate to speak up when Apple does something I consider ill-advised. At the same time, I feel obliged to give the company credit for the smart stuff, too.

I'd put Apple's decision not to gouge its trail-blazing Xserve customers in the latter category.

During the Xserve announcement event back in May, I asked the assembled Apple execs whether the upgrade to Mac OS X Server version 10.2 (aka Jaguar Server) would be free for Xserve customers. No, came the unhesitating response. Since Jaguar Server is a major upgrade, the company is going to charge for it. But while Apple's other Jaguar-related pricing announcements might give consumers pause, Xserve customers have cause to be content.

It turns out that all Xserve customers will get Jaguar Server (when it's released in August) for a US$20 upgrade fee as part of Apple's Mac OS X Up-To-Date program. The program goes into effect whenever Apple announces a major upgrade before releasing it (which is what happened with Jaguar at Jobs's Macworld Expo keynote on July 17), but doesn't want to completely annihilate its sales in the meantime.

Apple decided--wisely, I might add--to make sure that all Xserve customers were covered. Apple needs all the help it can get overcoming the inherent prejudice against Macs in IT that has developed over the years. This is an inexpensive means to that end, especially since it's in Apple's best interest to have all its Xserve customers running Jaguar Server.

But, given the company's behavior around Jaguar upgrades in general, I doubt the next major Mac OS X upgrade will be as inexpensive for Xserve owners. Most enterprise software companies provide automatic upgrades for a subscription fee--one that's typically less than the outright purchase price of upgrades. Unfortunately, Apple doesn't.

It's also unfortunate that non-Xserve customers who bought Mac OS X Server 10.1 before July 17 will still have to pay the full US$499 price of 10-user Jaguar Server (or US$999 for the unlimited user version)--that's not so smart. But that, too, is consistent with Apple's pricing strategy for the non-Server version of Jaguar (the upgrade to which will cost us regular folks US$129). Apple is apparently abolishing upgrade pricing at the consumer level. While that decision is undeniably penny-wise, I fear it's also pound-foolish.

Sure, Jaguar appears to offer upgraders plenty of worthwhile enhancements and outright additions. But I just can't reconcile Apple's need to grow the Mac OS X installed base with financially slapping its most loyal customers--the 10 percent of the Macintosh installed base that has already upgraded to Mac OS X--in the face. Sure, Apple needs revenue. But I think it's paying dearly in customer relations.

One aspect of Apple that I'm entirely sold on is the 700MHz iBook with the 12-inch LCD. I had a chance to use one as my full-time machine for a while. It still has and does everything that I liked about the previous two iterations of the snow iBook, and adds several worthwhile improvements.

In addition to the obvious speed bump of its G3 processor from 600MHz to 700MHz, several less obvious tweaks have improved the iBook. The combined AV port has been abolished in favor of a dedicated audio-out jack, which provides cleaner sound. (The iBook still doesn't have audio-in, though USB audio in devices should work fine.) A new dedicated video-out port and the necessary adapters now allow the iBook to emit VGA (Video Graphics Array) as well as S-Video and composite video.

The iBook has also had its video hardware upgraded to an ATI Mobility Radeon chip with 16MB of VRAM, which certainly seemed to boost performance under OS X 10.1. Though I didn't have the chance to do any concerted testing to validate the claim, Apple tells me that hardware power management has been further tuned to improve battery life. The iBook's AirPort reception remains stellar, the benchmark against which all other wireless laptops should be measured. I still haven't been able to try out the supposedly improved AirPort quality in the 800MHz Titanium PowerBooks, so I can't make a direct comparison.

The only major feature lacking from the iBook product line today is a G4 processor, but that's not Apple's fault. G4s just aren't available in a form that would provide reasonable battery life, not to mention safe heat dissipation. While Velocity Engine support would be useful (especially since the iBook is a cornerstone of Apple's digital hub strategy), there just doesn't seem to be a G4 in the iBook's near future. And while beefier video hardware would be nice (Jaguar's Quartz Extreme runs best with at least 32MB), I'm assured that Jaguar will run plenty fast on a 700MHz iBook.

Overall, the iBook remains a big winner in my book. I'm sure there are plenty of professional users out there who value its compact size and more-than-adequate performance as a road warrior machine, even though Apple steadfastly considers it a "consumer" laptop.

What do you think? Would you upgrade to Jaguar Server for US$20? For US$499? For US$999? What would you like to see added to the iBook? Talkback below.

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