Before I get into this, let me just forestall some of the more nasty responses I know Im going to get. Back in 1984, my Dad brought home one of the first Macintosh computers. He was a partner at Peat-Marwick, and they outfitted everyone with the cutesy luggables. I loved that computer, and logged many a happy hour fighting gelatinous cubes in Ultima 1.
But its been twenty years. And lets face it, even though the promise of 1984 didnt come true, Apple has delivered a steady stream of powerful, and industry-leading niche computers.
Apart from the horrible hockey-puck mouse (Steve Jobs quoted me at a MacWorld keynote, when I called it the “worst mouse ever made”), every computer user owes a great debt to Apples foresight and innovation. Apple popularized the graphical user interface we know today with overlapping windows, made the mouse a household word, and brought style and flash to the boring PC market.
But Apples time in that market has come and gone. When it comes to servers, notebooks and desktops, the company is now a follower and a failure, not a leader. Luckily, the innovative company still has a bright future.
Apple knows design. But lately functionality hasnt always followed. For example, I loved the early blue and white Power Macintosh G3s design with the easy-access side panel. It was brilliant, and made upgrading or repairing the desktops simple. But the G4 Cube, however beautiful its industrial design, was a boat anchor.
The iMac was a revolution in computer design. The iBook looked like a porta-potty refugee from a Hello Kitty cartoon.
Sure, todays Power Mac G5 is fast. And with two processors, its ideal for editing video or making movies. But its not the only game in town. Many movie studios are discovering that a fast Linux-based system can outpace any Macintosh—at a fraction of the price.
For proof of this, look no further than cinema-quality 3D animation and photo-realistic special effects. The processors found in desktop systems are now fast enough to supplant the super-expensive Silicon Graphics boxes needed just a few years ago for movies such as Shrek, The Lord of the Rings and Pearl Harbor.
But movie studios arent trading in SGI for Apple. Instead DreamWorks, Disney, Warner Brothers and other houses are moving to low-cost Linux workstations from HP, IBM and other vendors. Even Pixars rendering tools are available on Linux and Windows along with Mac OS X.
So what about portables? Apples new notebooks are lookers, definitely, but they dont offer anything you cant find elsewhere. The designs are nice, but theres little else, besides brand, to differentiate them.
What about the OS and software? Apples been rightly lauded as a leader in both areas. But not anymore. Apples OSX operating system is based on Unix, and now the company steals interface ideas from Microsoft, instead of Xerox. I love the new Expose quick-zoom feature on the desktop, but thats hardly worth switching from either Windows or Linux.
And what about Sherlock? The ultra-usable search tool that was supposed to take the Internet by storm? Google has been running rings around it for years.
When it comes to operating systems and software, Apple surely puts out a good product. But unlike in years past, its not much better than Windows. Its not even the most talked about computer interface—GNOME and KDE, over in the Linux space, take that crown.
Apple is Far From
But thats not to say that Apple is dead. Nope, far from it, actually. But the companys changed. When was the last time you heard anyone ooohing or aaahing over a new PC or notebook? Not for a while. But Apples still a darling—just in a brand new, consumer electronics space.
Take the iPod. It doesnt have the biggest hard drive, or the smallest size. But it has a generous allotment of the Apple magic: sex appeal, sizzle and nifty usability.
And when it comes to software, look no further than iTunes. Sure, Sherlocks been bypassed, but leave it to Apple to solve the on-line music conundrum. 70 million downloads later, a buck a song was clearly a brilliant move.
Or take the iSight camera. Its hardly the best Webcam out there, but combined with Apples nifty software, it really delivers a great user experience. And it looks so much cooler than anyone elses too.
Im not sure how much time Apple spends obsessing over its computer business. But its more time than they have. Apple has clearly become a consumer electronics and media company, but its already lagging in many key areas.
If I were Steve Jobs, heres what Id trade in:
|Trade In||Pick Up|
|G5 Desktops||Media Center Macintosh|
|XServe Servers||Home Media Server and PVR|
|iBook||iPod Video Player|
|OS X||iHome OS|
Running Down the Options
I could go on, but lets look at each one in turn:
Media Center Macintosh. ExtremeTechs Dave Salvator was on the money in his recent column titled “Why is Apple MIA from the living room?
“Media Center PCs, media adapters, and other connectivity products that bridge the computer to television gap are one of the most popular areas of computing today. Apple could own this market. Give up the G5 and go for the glory!” Salvator said.
Home Media Server/PVR. Who knows video better than Apple? With Paul Allens Digeo releasing the TiVo-like Moxi, Scientific Atlanta creating four-room PVRs, and TiVo itself stumbling, nows a perfect time for Apple to dominate this market. Instead it makes rack-mounted servers for the enterprise. Keep the rack, change the focus. Apple could make a home server to die for.
iPod Video Player. This summer, were going to see a flood of personal video players, based on Microsofts Media Center platform. But theyre all fundamentally flawed—you need an expensive Media Center PC to shovel video and audio onto the device. Unlike Archos flawed AV320, you cant record to them directly.
In a year or so, theyll fix the problems, but until then the markets wide open. Why does the iPod remain an audio platform? Because Apples too busy refreshing the iBooks to embrace this emerging category.
iHome OS. Yes, OSX is a nice piece of work—its just not original anymore. Apple should take all those expert interface designers and OS wizards and foist them on a bigger problem: building a decent interface for managing, viewing and storing media at home. Its a huge problem, but Apples got enough geniuses to make it work, I know!
NewtPhone. I know Apple stopped making the Newton years ago, but there must be a skunk works down there somewhere on Infinite Drive in Cupertino hoping to recapture the old glory. Let the past stay in the past!
Instead, Apple should look towards Smart Phones. Why shouldnt Apple be shellacking Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Siemens in this incendiary market? There will be 2 billion intelligent phones sold over the next few years. With Apples device, form factor and OS brilliance, they could dominate here too.
iHDTV. Many traditional computer makers are now making a killing selling high-end TVs that double as computer monitors. Unfortunately, they all look terrible.
With a bit of Apple design, and some old-fashioned engineering excellence, Apple could clean up in this market too. Who wouldnt opt for an Apple logo on the TV in the living room over Dell, Gateway or HP?
Meanwhile, I didnt even touch on digital cameras (my first one was made by, yes, Apple), speakers, stereos and home media networks. Apple could own these categories too, if it tried.
Apple has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dominate the emerging convergence world. But its legacy operations are dragging it down.
Kill the computers, Steve, and embrace the home. But if you do, be careful with that remote control. The last thing I need on my coffee table is another coaster-shaped device for the kids to chew on.