The uneasy Mac-Microsoft symbiosis

The Mac-Microsoft symbiosis By Matthew Rothenberg, November 12, 1999 10:34 AM PT Steve Jobs began his current tenure at Apple with a neat (andcharacteristic) bit of theater, taking Boston's Macworld Expo keynotestage in August 1997 to introduce Microsoft Corp.

The Mac-Microsoft symbiosis
By Matthew Rothenberg,
November 12, 1999 10:34 AM PT

Steve Jobs began his current tenure at Apple with a neat (and characteristic) bit of theater, taking Boston's Macworld Expo keynote stage in August 1997 to introduce Microsoft Corp. CEO Bill Gates via satellite and declare a cease-fire in the longstanding OS war between the two companies.

The move certainly garnered headlines both within and without the Mac community. The newly rehabilitated Apple iCEO was alternately applauded by some observers for a visionary move and derided by some Mac stalwarts who feared that the Mac maker had knuckled under to a company they continued to view as the Great Satan of high-tech.

In truth, Jobs' statement, "We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose" was neither a unilateral surrender nor a Pauline reversal of Apple's philosophy. Instead, it was a pragmatic recognition of Windows' dominant market share and of a relationship that's always been far more complex than simple black and white.

Look at the terms of the deal that the companies announced that day: Microsoft would purchase $150 million in nonvoting Apple stock, Apple would give Internet Explorer preference when it came to Mac OS bundling, and the companies would cross-license an assortment of patents through 2002. That's not chicken feed, but it's hardly the stuff that could make or break a company the size of Microsoft -- or even then-beleaguered Apple.

Instead, the agreement was a public recognition of mutual need: Apple needed Microsoft to continue Mac development, and Microsoft needed Apple to provide at least some proof that the Windows maker wasn't committed to total ownership of the desk- and laptop OS market. (Ninety-five percent or so would suffice, it seemed.)

By the same token, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's finding last week that Microsoft had indeed used its tremendous wealth and power to apply unfair pressure in the markets it competes in doesn't mean instant benefits for the Mac OS. There's a lot riding on what remedies the court prescribes, and there's no predicting that a big loss for Microsoft will mean a major win for Apple or the Mac.

Even if the appeals process is expedited, observers say the Supreme Court won't issue an opinion on the case until the end of 2000 at the earliest. That leaves a pretty substantial window for Apple and Microsoft to revamp and market their next-generation OSes -- Mac OS X and Windows 2000, respectively -- under the current rules of engagement.

If after that date the rules were to change radically -- up to and including the prospect that Microsoft could be chopped up into multiple companies, a la John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust at the beginning of this century -- there's no guarantee that the playing field would slant appreciably in Apple's favor.

Remember, Microsoft is among other things the world's first and foremost third-party developer of Mac software. Its prominence in the PC market was fueled largely by its early and enthusiastic support for the Mac GUI, support that has continued with some lapses (remember Word 6?) throughout the '90s.

Of course, altruism has had nothing to do with that long Mac track record. And while the Mac market has remained a profitable niche for Microsoft, the money to be made there would hardly be worth aiding and abetting an OS competitor, especially for a company as predatory as Microsoft.

Like many other Mac partisans, I suspect that the major reason for Microsoft's continued Mac support has actually been the desire to prevent just the sort of conclusion that Judge Jackson reached last week. And if that's the case, splitting off Microsoft's applications operation from its OS works (the most likely breakup scenario) could eliminate that motivation while reducing the "bandwidth" (to appropriate a Gatesian term) available to work on platforms beyond its Windows core.

While this upheaval might benefit Linux or other OSes where Microsoft has yet to make a serious incursion, Mac users have a clear, vested interest in ensuring a more-peaceful transfer of power. And Microsoft wouldn't have it any other way.

Matthew Rothenberg is director of online content for Mac Publishing LLC, which publishes MacWEEK, MacCentral, Macworld and MacBuy.