Apple consumed by consumers

Is Steve Jobs taking the 'Sony wannabe' plan too far? With MacOS X, it looks like it

Analysis What a keynote. The last time Macworld Expo attendees sat down to a two-hour-and-over Apple CEO spiel was back in 1997 when dear old Gil Amelio took the stand only to lose track of topic and time when his teleprompter unexpectedly quit with a Type 1 error -- much as Uncle Gil was to do mere months later. Throughout the proceedings, the audience shuffled uncomfortably, but this time attendees were on the edge of their seat as Steve Jobs, with a way more upbeat tone than his predecessor, enthusiastically unveiled Apple's Internet strategy and -- completely unexpected, this -- MacOS X, his cool troubled only when Quake III failed to expectedly quit during a demo of the upcoming OS. Jobs' neatly summed up his own keynote them with the phrase 'beyond the box'. As predicted here, now that Apple has its professional and consumer hardware product lines are in place, Jobs' strategy centres on widening the company into something more than a computer manufacturer. Last year, Jobs said he wanted Apple to be more like Sony. That translates to re-engineering consumers' perception of Apple as a brand first and a computing platform second, which in essence means promoting the name 'Apple' -- neatly done, you'll notice, through the Think Different campaign, which doesn't mention the Mac at all -- and pursuing new revenue streams. Which, of course, is where the company's Internet strategy comes in. Jobs' plan doesn't go as far as many observers -- including this one -- had expected. Instead of moving into the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market in its own right, Apple has simply signed up EarthLink as its exclusive access provider and has chosen instead to focus its Net efforts on shifting its own Web site into portal territory. With hindsight, it's almost certainly the right move. The $200 million Apple is pumping into EarthLink could easily have been spent setting up the necessary infrastructure to provide computer users with Internet access, either for free or for a subscription fee, and endow it with a brand to match that of the market leader, AOL. But the thing about being an ISP is that when it comes down to it, you're just the plumbing. And ISP simply hooks up a user to the Net -- and it's the Internet where the interesting stuff happens, not the pipeline between the two. More to the point, it neatly insulates Apple from changes within the ISP market. Should free Internet access become the norm, as it has in the UK and is beginning to emerge across Europe, that's going to make life tough for traditional ISPs. Content, not connectivity, is king, and by leaving all that tedious plumbing to EarthLink, Apple can focus its energies on building up the Mac online community no matter what methods its members use to dial in. The finer points of Apple's redesigned Web site, which integrates the online AppleStore, adds a stack of new consumer-oriented tools and colour-co-ordinates the whole thing with the current iMac line-up, check out our story Apple's Internet Strategy Emerges. For now, what matters is that Apple isn't just providing its customers with some cute facilities -- and tying some in to MacOS 9 to provide a better service and some much-needed exclusivity for Mac users, is a clever scheme -- but that it's building for itself the basis for a extended e-commerce platform. That doesn't just mean the AppleStore, but the collection of demographic data -- users have to register their membership -- to help the company target revenue-generating advertising. And it's not just quality but quantity that matter here too, which is where Apple hopes its plan to promote QuickTime will pay off. Every time someone plays back a QuickTime movie, they're also watching an ad for Apple. And QuickTime TV provides users with plenty of material to play back. Even if it doesn't lead to increase sales of Mac hardware -- though it can't do an harm -- it does help grow the number of surfers coming to Apple's Web site, and that's just what the Internet business model is based upon. You'll notice that there's very little here for Apple's professional customers -- all of Apple's new Web services are pitched almost exclusively at consumers. Again, this is the Sony model coming in to play, something that even extends to Apple's system software strategy, which has been changed yet again, this time to focus exclusively on MacOS X. The irony here is that MacOS X -- the 'X' neatly signifying not only the Roman numeral for ten, but the OS' Unix heritage -- is Apple's most pro-oriented system software yet. Originally developed for the company's most power-hungry and performance-minded customers, MacOS X is now, like everything else, being subtly shifted down into the consumer space. MacOS X's Aqua user interface drew both loud applause and stunned silence (not at the same time, of course) from the Macworld crowd, but apart from the OS' PDF-based 2D graphics engine, there's little here of use to professional Mac users, for all Jobs' claims to the contrary. Equally, Aqua is by no means the ground-breaking UI that Apple's spin-meisters say it is. Like the new-look Web site, it's just an iMac-styled standard GUI. That's not to say there aren't some very useful features built in -- tying dialog boxes to parent windows is a major step forward -- but Close, Minimise and Maximise buttons are old hat, even if they are coloured, translucent and 3D. The new Finder is no more than a file manager application. The Dock is just Windows 95's application launcher bar with better graphics -- and the Windows version is just a rip-off of a well-established Unix UI feature. And am I the only one who's going to get really annoyed, really quickly with windows squirting up and down as they move in and out of the Dock? Apple damn well better put in some off switches for these crowd-wowing but productivity diminishing features. And 'crowd-wowing' is the key phrase here -- or perhaps 'consumer-pleasing' would be better. Aqua is geared far more to consumers than long-time Mac users (though they'll find some benefits too), which is why MacOS 9, originally planned to be maintained as a low-end OS for old Mac and consumers, will now be replaced by MacOS X when it ships in the summer as a standalone product and is bundled with news Macs this time next year. There's nothing wrong with this plan, and it's certainly an improvement on Apple's original, buyer-confusing dual-OS (9 and X) strategy. MacOS X looks like it will provide power users with the robust OS they need, and consumers with the easy to use they require, which is fundamentally what the Mac system software has always been about. The problem is that if Aqua proves to be too cute, too consumer-friendly it could well ensure MacOS X will be perceived -- for all its Unix-derived power -- as a 'toy' OS, even more than the original Mac GUI was to the command line crowd. ® Related Stories Apple's Internet strategy takes shape Apple unveils MacOS X, readies 'classic' OS' retirement Apple's Jobs declared CEO for life Analysts bullish about Apple ahead of Expo announcements

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