Eugene Lacey "IT's Like This..."

The Apple tastes sweet again, but perhaps not as sweet as Apple would have us believe and certainly not according to Matthew Lynn of the Sunday Times, who reckons it takes more than looks to appeal...

Macsters have reasons to be cheerful again. The iMac is a smash hit, profits are up, Steve 'walks on water' Jobs is still running the show, and the new OS, version 8.5 has now shipped - on time, and on budget.

Will the good times continue to roll? One person who remains to be convinced is Sunday Times correspondent, Matthew Lynn, who was last week rewarded with a ten minute audience with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, after a flight to Paris and a three hour wait in a hotel lobby. Lynn was not pleased. "Ill-mannered bully...childish egotist" and "Saddam would probably be more helpful" were some of the phrases in his less than flattering profile of Apple's acting CEO.

Putting to one side the fact that Lynn writes for a newspaper whose columnists prefer writing about themselves (Tara Palmer Tomkinson, AA Gill, Michael Winner etc.) than anything else, and the fact that one would not expect Jobs to bend over backwards for the important correspondent just arrived from London, Lynn did ask a very good question that received an entirely inadequate response. "Surely" asked Lynn, "after launching the Apple II, and the Macintosh, both revolutionary machines, launching a computer that is just, well, blue, must seem something of a let-down."

Jobs springs to the defence of the iMac. "A lot of people have to kind of hide their computer away," he tells Lynn. "They sort of put it in the corner. We think that design is going to be a really important part of things. It is going to be a big factor in why people are buying computers. So it is really exciting for us to be back in the consumer market."

Sure, design is important, but not that important. The main hurdle to creating a computer that, to quote the old Apple slogan, 'everyone can use,' is not the box, but what's inside it or, more accurately, what appears on its screen.

Apple attacks PC makers for churning out dull beige boxes, but the reality is that the user experience on a dull beige box running Windows 98, is pretty similar to a user running the Mac OS 8.5 on a sexy looking iMac. (alright - marginally more user friendly on a Mac, but only marginally). The difference is even less if the main thing you do with this box is surf the Web. If the computer industry wants to build a computer for the masses it needs to start with the operating system, which is still based on the flat, two dimensional metaphor of an office desk. It is nearly thirty years since this was invented by Xerox and popularised by Apple. What the world needs now is another radical shift, an operating system that is not flat, but three dimensional, colourful, animated, talkative and portable. I used to think that Apple was the place where this new operating system might emerge, but if iMac is there best shot at a computer for the home, that 'everyone can use', then like Matthew Lynn I am not convinced either.

So what about those good times? Certainly, they can continue to roll. It is getting tedious to have to point this out every time Apple is in the news and the question is asked - can Apple hold it together? Tedious, because people have been asking how long Apple can hang on for the last twenty years and it is just getting - well, boring. Apple could survive in any number of ways - they could sell Wintel boxes with Apple badges on for one thing (they would probably sell like hot cakes in iMac boxes), though of course they don't need to upset the Macsters by doing this.

There's a good solid business at Apple, with an enviable range of core competencies, and there has been for the last fifteen years. Whether they can repeat their recent improved financial performance will not really figure that prominently when the history of computer operating systems is written in say, 2050. The Mac OS was Chapter 1, Windows Chapter 2, Chapter 3 May belong to Netscape/or IE - it most definitely won't belong to iMac, and it will take a much more radical approach from Apple if they are to claim Chapters 4 and 5.

My money is on the Japanese.


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