Apple seeks success in ‘killer apps’

Well, it worked for the Apple II...

Solutions, not systems, will win Windows users to the Mac cause and get Apple out of the financial mess it has suddenly found itself in. That's what CEO Steve Jobs is telling staffers and analysts in private, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Essentially, Jobs' vision harks back to the early days of Apple, when sales of the Apple II took off like a Fourth of July/Bonfire Night* rocket thanks to the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc.

Thus was the myth of the 'killer app' born, and with Apple back in the doldrums, Jobs is once again hoping software will prove the key to the company's future success.

God knows Apple needs it. Things are indeed looking bad when the old Apple-is-about-to-be-taken-over rumours start up again. On Friday, Sony's top man, Nobouki Idei, explicitly denied the company was out to buy Apple now the latter's share price has plummeted so far. That won't stop the rumours - expect all the old favourites, including IBM and Sun, to appear as potential suitors over the coming months.

But back to software. Frankly, we're sceptical. That's not to say Apple can't or won't come up with some very fine applications - we're sure it can; just look at iMovie - but that it's a very moot point whether they'll be enough to persuade people to buy Apple's over-priced, under-specced machines (to Windows users, at any rate).

Apple has been buying media creation tools of late, most recently Radialogic Software's CD authoring code which, according to WSJ sources, it snapped up last December. Neither company will comment on the deal. Early last year, Apple publicly bought Astarte's DVD authoring software. It's not hard to see these components being rolling into some good consumer and pro-oriented tools along the lines of iMovie. Next up is iMusic, Apple's much-rumoured MP3 and CD mastering application.

As great as these apps may prove to be, it's hard to see existing Windows users buying complete iMac systems just to get hold of a handful of cool tools. The Windows world is, after all, not short of apps.

New users might be more tempted, but given the massive dip in PC sales this past Christmas, it's going to take some very impressive bundling to persuade them to buy now. If they're not going to buy a flashy iMac at a time when they're more inclined to spend money on less-than-essential items, it's hard to see them doing so now.

Bundling is a tricky business, balancing cost against providing users with tools they'll actually want - or want sufficiently to buy a specific platform. Bundles all too frequently simply provide dated, remaindered software that no one's buying, like the contents of Apple's old Performa bundle.

The best bundles are the ones that ensure users don't need to buy any more software, but obviously Apple won't be too keen on that for fear of pissing of its ISVs. That's why it has to tread carefully with the application areas it points its own software developers at.

Don't doubt that they'll come up with some good apps, but it's hard to see any of them turning the company's fortunes around just yet. ®

*US/UK readers delete as applicable. Other Reg fans can choose their own appropriately incendiary festival.

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