Apple: Just one straw remains on the camel's back

Steve Jobs' reputation as an idealist and a control freak precedes him everywhere he goes.   Before yesterday, if you asked the age-old question of why other companies like Dell (ones that are better at minimizing hardware manufacturing costs) don't make computers that run Apple's operating systems, they  would have no choice but to make a pit stop at the PowerPC question.

Steve Jobs' reputation as an idealist and a control freak precedes him everywhere he goes.   Before yesterday, if you asked the age-old question of why other companies like Dell (ones that are better at minimizing hardware manufacturing costs) don't make computers that run Apple's operating systems, they  would have no choice but to make a pit stop at the PowerPC question.  Dell, just for example, doesn't even make systems with Intel-compatible AMD chips in them, let alone computers with PowerPC chips in them.  [Sidebar: AMD would probably prefer that you think of it the other way now that Intel makes 32/64 bit hybrids -- in other words  "AMD-compatible Intel chips").  If for no other reason than the way it complicates sales and support, systems manufacturers already have so much angst over which Intel/AMD-compatible operating systems to preinstall, that considering anything beyond the x86 world sphere of influence was simply incomprehensible.  It wasn't even a question of whether Apple would or would not license the operating system for inclusion by systems manufacturers. 

On the rumor scale, Apple's announcement that it's shifting to Intel ranks up there with Intel announcing, after getting tamed by AMD, that it would offer a 32/64-bit hybrid chip.  Both companies never admitted to the pre-announcement skunkworks projects for addressing the initiatives, but virtually the entire industry knew the projects existed.  But now that, with the shift to Intel, the most difficult bullet has been bitten --the one that Apple and its devotees said would never be bitten -- the biggest hurdle to letting the Dells and Gateways of the world resell OS X computers has been removed.   What remains -- the final straw on the camel's back -- is almost as big of a hurdle.   If you're asking the original question (see the second sentence of this blog), the answer, apparently, is Apple's CEO Steve Jobs.

Jobs, by all accounts, has been the one that refuses to entertain the idea of letting other companies make Apple hardware. This do-it-alone approach has been hugely successful in the areas of usability and the out-of-box experience.  For the longest time, nothing came close to a Mac.  Getting behind the keyboard of a Mac was like slipping behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce. There simply was no comparison.  But since August of 1995, when Microsoft Windows 95 officially began Microsoft's long march to close the gap (I remember then-Microsoft vice president Brad Chase asking for an honest opinion of whether Windows 95 didn't offer the best of three worlds --  Mac, OS/2, and Motif), Apple has not been able to stay as many steps ahead as it once did with the Mac OS.  That's not to say it still isn't better. (I have one sitting right here and still come back to it for some tasks.)  But, forgetting the security situation for a minute (and I will get back to that momentarily), the difference between Mac and Windows (and now Linux) can no longer be described in terms of Rolls-Royces and ordinary passenger cars. 

So, Apple's biting of one bullet, but not the other, is a bit troubling to this long-term observer.  Not only does the move to Intel pave the way for that next logical step, but there is perhaps no better time for Apple to give it it shot than now -- and here's why:

Apple is enjoying a resurgence in popularity: Thanks in part to Apple's iPods and its iTunes Music Store, Apple is riding a new wave of popularity.  In the undertow of that wave, the success has given a boost to other parts of Apple including its computers and its stores.  But, if you ask me, under the present business model, that wave isn't going to last forever.  Sure, the Intel announcement will add some new juice into the current computer lineup -- bringing its computers up to par with Windows on performance, power consumption and heat dissipation, and somewhat down to par with Windows on cost  --  and maybe along with that deal will come some other good Intel karma: namely in the area of wireless and handhelds (both key silicon strongholds for Intel).  But if the iPod buzz wears off at some point, Apple will need other reasons to motivate buyers to think about OS X for their next purchase.

If the cost is right, the usability is proven, and the security is better, businesses might be ready: For more than two years now, I've been asking Apple for an interview to discuss its plans, or lack thereof, for going after businesses of all sizes (not just soho to small to some medium sized businesses).  The key question I've had is, with advantages in usability (even though its diminishing over time) and security over Windows and with the cost compared to Windows systems coming more in-line, why restrict the business push primarily to servers? Under the hood, OS X is an operating system -- Unix -- that most businesses are very familiar and comfortable with.  Apple has also argued in the past that, by using OS X-based systems, companies can drive dollars out of their total cost of ownership through the avoidance of support calls. To boot, OS X is one of the slickest environments for developing and using Java applications on the planet (clearly an enterprise feature).  Why not take advantage of Microsoft's key weaknesses (along with OS X's key advantages) and make a play for a larger business market? Businesses might go for it.  If today, you told me I could buy any system and that money is no object, it would still be a Mac.  If Apple wants to hit the medium to large enterprise market (as I've thought it should during these prolonged years of security darkness for Windows),  it will need partners to do so.  Now that it has switched to Intel, perhaps there are some partners like Dell that can help.  Officially, by the way, Dell refused to comment.

Controlling the hardware while letting others manufacture it isn't as hard as it used to be:  To consistently get that pristine first-rate experience that the Mac OS has so long been known for delivering, Apple has historically had to keep control over both the hardware and the software.  This is understandable.  History has proven that when you leave certain aspects of the hardware up to someone  other than the operating system maker, the results can be anything but consistent.   That was never good enough for  Steve Jobs.  But this is 2005 and software vendors have had pretty good luck controlling the hardware.  Just ask Microsoft.  Or, better put, look no further than Microsoft's PocketPC, phone, and tablet operating systems.  Each of these OSes place more requirements on hardware manufacturers than plain old Windows ever did.   Microsoft literally took control of things like display size and resolution (on PocketPCs) and the buttons that invoked certain OS features (on PDAs, phones, and tablets).  Within those markets, the result has been much less in the way of product differentiation from one product to the next.  But, the participants in those markets have also seen enough wiggle room to go after the competition on both price,  features, and functionality without running astray of Microsoft's stringent specifications.  It's preposterous to think that some other hardware manufacturer couldn't actually do something innovative with OS X beyond what Apple has already done.  Docking stations for notebooks come to mind. (IBM has done a pretty good job there with ThinkPads and here's an idea: Come up with a docking station that's also a USB hub so that when you undock your  computer, your USB-based peripherals don't lose their power.)

Apple is no longer alone in building a sleek, high quality chassis (notebooks/desktops): OK, this is kind of a part B to the last point, but let's face it.  Whereas buyers of Macs and Powerbooks routinely enjoyed a much better out of the box ooh and aah experience than buyers of Intel-based systems, the same is no longer true.  I'm every bit as impressed with IBM's (now Lenovo) ThinkPads as Dan Gillmor is and would also pay a premium to have one with Mac OS X running on it (although, I'd like my computer to also have at least one 6-pin FireWire jack like the PowerBooks do).   Somewhere (please help me if you know), recently, I read that one of the big notebook makers (I thought it was Lenovo, but I can't find it) is readying a notebook that's practically a PowerBook knock-off.   So, again, like everything else that has set Apple's systems apart, the world seems pretty hip to the qualities that have attracted people to Apple hardware and it's only a matter of time before we see more and more systems that look and feel so much like Apple systems that they might as well be Apple systems.