Why Will Apple Succeed?

Apple’s 30th anniversary is a prime subject for journalists this month, and I’ve fielded a number of interesting questions concerning Apple’s success. I gathered some relevant questions and my responses here.

Q. Will Apple ever be successful in the business market?

I think Apple is already somewhat successful and will continue to gain market share with the Intel-based Macs. However, the new frontier in business software is the move to Web services, a.k.a. Web. 2.0, and the Mac is just another player in this world, and not particularly more compelling than a stripped-down, security-software-laden PC running a browser. I agree in part with David Berlind’s opinion in his Between the Lines blog on ZDNet, “Mac OS X for business: Too little, too late“. Berlind points to an article in the Wall St. Journal by Nick Wingfield, “Mac’s Moment?” — in which Wingfield states that Apple has its best chance in years to make a dent in the business market. According to David Berlind,

This is pure bologna. Apple’s best chance to “make a dent” came about two years ago when Windows looked completely hopeless on the security front.

Berlind’s experience with pushing the Mac for business two years ago is not particularly insightful — sure, the company did little to promote itself through existing business channels such as ZDNet — but Berlind’s point about Web 2.0 and the future of computing is something I agree with:

But increasingly over time, they’ll be little more than hosts, integration points, and interface providers for thin applications and XML-based Web services. This isn’t exactly a good time for a new operating system — be it OS X, Linux or even Microsoft’s own Vista — to displace the installed base.

And of course I agree with Berlind’s bottom line, for in effect he uses a computer for business:

Will Apple sell more Macs? Definitely. I’d like nothing more than one of those slick systems sitting on my desktop. But a dent in business sales? Not.

This is the point: Apple is in fact growing its business market share, slowly but surely. A comment by “dlmeyer” to the above blog makes the case well:

I suspect there’s a couple flaws in the logic of all involved here. Apple is a growing influence in the back rooms of many corporations… A growing share of a growing market means many more sales each quarter, and they are mostly ‘new customers’ for Apple… Apple should be looking at ways to get more Macs onto corporate desktops. But not by wholesale replacement! A couple thousand a year in that 180,000 desk company would be a great start! Apple is growing faster today than any other PC maker in the top ten, there is always a danger in growing too quickly.

Besides, what’s to stop Apple from dominating home and small business computing?

Q. What is the key to Apple’s success over the last thirty years?

Innovation and style. Apple’s aggressive optimism in being innovative at all costs is appealing, and its use of style is excellent marketing. Apple’s solution to the the music industry’s conundrum about online music — the iPod and iTunes music store — is, by all accounts, wildly successful. Two decades ago Apple provided many of the innovations we now rely on in computing — easy networking and file sharing, a personalized user interface, integration of audio and video… the list goes on and on. But most importantly, Apple is willing to do anything to innovate — at least, that’s the perception. It’s like a breath of fresh air whenever Apple introduces something.

The Mac over the last 20 years has been an innovation in what some people today call “personal media aggregation” or “digital lifestyle aggregation”. Slowly but surely, the Mac became the control center for my life — all aspects of my life, including work, hobbies, socializing, family activities, travel… There is no part of my life that is not in some way coordinated by email, posted on a calendar, described in documents, shown in photos, visualized in graphics, demonstrated by video, and accompanied by sound… on my Mac. This evolution of personal computing is still led by Apple as the company introduces media players and home systems.

Q. Do you think the iPod is diluting the Apple brand and its status as an elite and luxurious brand?

No. At some point Apple may license the FairPlay digital rights management technology so that others can manufacture iPod-like devices that play iTunes music store music. But Apple will continue to innovate. As for “elite and luxurious” I beg to differ: you just can’t get all the features of either an iPod or a Mac at a lower price anyway. I don’t buy luxury products, nor do I consider myself part of an elite. I just said “no” to Microsoft.

Q. Looking back on Apple’s 30 years, do you think things could have been any different? If Apple had sold their machines more cheaply, or licensed the Mac OS to third-party manufacturers, do you think the Microsoft monopoly could have been avoided?

You have to go back to Microsoft DOS. Rather than encouraging a choice in computer hardware grounded in innovation, Microsoft’s DOS fostered a choice grounded in copycat engineering. DOS was closely tied to the hardware configuration, which helped to solidify the IBM PC (which was largely comprised of off-the-shelf components) as a market standard, which in turn spawned an industry of IBM PC clones. As a computer user back then, I was miserable using these clones. But I don’t think there was any way to stop Microsoft — its major competitor, Digital Research, was stomped into the dirt even though it had a better user interface (with GEM) than Windows.

The Mac was a breath of fresh air. But the Mac OS was not something Apple could easily license, for roughly the same reason: it was tied to the hardware configuration. There would have had to be Mac clones. And of course, copycat engineering is never very satisfying to those who are looking for innovation. So I’m happy that Apple chose the route it took. I’ve been a happy Apple user for all these decades despite its lack of market share.

Q. Do you think it’s fare to say that Microsoft threw Apple a lifeline back in the late 90s, by securing development of MS Office for 5 years? If they’d pulled the plug, would Apple still be here?

Who knows for sure? What I know is that at the time, Microsoft needed the PR, and Apple needed Office. Nobody did this for charity. Today, Microsoft needs better R&D, while Apple doesn’t need Office.

Q. Will Macs see just as many viruses as Windows if its market share continues to increase?

No, because Mac OS X has a more secure architecture (see “A Tale of Two Viral Exploits“). For one thing, installer programs for Mac OS X require authentication to run, while installers for Windows XP don’t. Authentication stops the installation process to get your password. If something starts to install itself on your Mac, you will most likely know because it will ask for your password. Another difference between Mac OS X and Windows XP is that even as the sole user (a.k.a. administrator) of a Mac OS X system, you don’t get access to system-critical files (known as root access in the language of system administrators). Administrators in Windows XP do, thereby allowing applications such as viruses access to those files too. Also, Microsoft often ships software with settings at the least secure positions. Mac OS X starts out with filesharing and related services turned off — you have to turn them on to use them. Windows XP starts with these services on, assuming you want to immediately share files with other computers on the network.

Q. With all the buzz lately about booting Windows on Macs lately, would you consider using a Macintosh to run Windows if you needed a Windows machine?

I always need a Windows PC, if only to test software for PCs, to grab “screen shots” of software-in-action for one of my books, or to (ahem) play games. Most likely a garden-variety game-oriented PC is the right choice for these activities, and not too expensive. It may seem a “luxury” to own 2 computers, but many people do. My Mac PowerBook is my life. I will continue to expand with an iMac and an Intel Mac; I even have older Macs that still work fine and are networked in. As for running Windows on my Intel Mac, I will surely try it (and, of course, the alternatives). But I won’t recommend anything until I’ve really had enough hands-on experience. Right now I don’t recommend trying it for playing Windows games.


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