Apple Moves Boldly Forward

Company is on the right track, but may have to sacrifice some 'Mac-ness' to really make things interesting

The atmosphere at the opening Macworld keynote earlier this month was reminiscent of a big-tent religious revival, complete with a keenly rapt and vigorously head-nodding congregation. I showed up for The Steves sermon with a markedly more agnostic mindset, and I must say that I was impressed anyway.

Thats because rather than just trumpet speed-and-feed refreshes for existing hardware, or release a piece of unwanted gadgetry, like an iPod that plays video clips (as if anyone, anywhere, ever clamored to play video clips on the go), Apple moved boldly and rationally forward.

The hardware and software announcements at Macworld demonstrate that Steve and Co. are on the right track, playing to their strengths in product design and brand equity, and taking advantage of the open-source world to shore up their weaknesses.

One such glaring weakness was that of the Web browser, which Apple moved to remedy with the release of Safari, a new Web browser native to OS X and based on KHTML, the rendering engine from Konqueror, the KDE Projects excellent browser and file manager.

Ive read that theres some hand-wringing about how the release of Safari and of Powerpoint rival Keynote have dropped Apple into a deadly head-to-head battle with Microsoft, but the two are already rivals, and the Redmond that recently vanquished the DOJ in court cant be expected to look out for Apples interests.

If Apple has already created a presentation application to suit Steve Jobs speaking needs—particularly, one that that takes specific advantage of OS Xs unique graphical capabilities—why shouldnt it release it? Even if Microsoft were to punitively drop their Mac Office offering in response, there are other options. Jumping immediately to mind is, which now exists in a rather good beta version for X11 on OS X, with a Mac-native version due to arrive in early 2004.

Alternatively, Apple could release its own office apps, a la Keynote, based either on its own code or the open code of

As for Safari, I cant see how Apple had any other choice but to build its own browser. Internet Explorer is now and has always been part of Microsofts strategy for platform dominance. For example, thanks to ActiveX, Microsofts Exchange Webmail client carries about double the functionality for Internet Explorer on Windows that it does for any other platform, including IE plus OS X. To remain reliant on IE for its Web capabilities would continue to doom Apples OS X to second-class status as a Web consumer.

By rolling its own, Apple has injected a much-needed shot of diversity into the browser space, and its now able to give users the features they want—such as pop-up blocking—but that Microsoft seems unwilling to bring to Internet Explorer.

However, to bring users more of what they want—such as tabbed browsing—Apple will have to learn to come to terms with free softwares defining virtue—openness.

Apple is in love with control (see one-button mouse) and rumor has it that tabbed browsing was left out of Safari because it offends some sense of Mac-ness. I asked Apple about this, and was told that theyre not categorically opposed to adding tabs to Safari—just that it wasnt a priority for them this time around.

Apples clearly been busy, so its possible to hope that tabs could eventually appear in Safari once the development team gets around to putting them there. If Apple really is open to thinking different about what makes a Mac, heres hoping that down the road itll treat us to a much larger show of openness—a port of OS X to x86. If Apples serious about going head-to-head with Microsoft, why not really throw itself into the battle?

Ive written about this before, and been showered with objections. For instance, many will say that its Apples control of hardware and software that makes the Mac what it is, and that OS X running on a garden-variety Dell box cant substitute for a shiny new iMac.

Thats certainly true, but Id argue that those who buy the shiny new iMacs now will continue to buy them, and that OS X on x86 would only bring more users, such as do-it-yourselfers and business types, into the fold—along with $129 or so per copy for Apples coffers.

This argument works as well for those who object that Apple will avoid x86 for fear of eroding its hardware margins—whether or not Apple chooses to go x86, its already moving to protect hardware profits by placing a stronger focus on its notebook computer lineup.

Steve Jobs bragged about Apples superiority among computer makers in notebook-to-desktop sales ratio, and expressed his intent to stretch the portion of high-margin notebook sales ever farther. No matter which architecture OS X runs on, youre going to have to get your bleeding-edge, supercool Powerbooks from Apple.

Also, theres the question of driver availability, but the open-source community has done a rather good job of filling their own needs in this area, and the addition of Apples systems would give hardware makers more incentive to produce drivers for a fast-growing, x86 and Unix-based OS machine population.

Open source has opened a crack, even if its just a small one, in Microsofts grip on computing. So far, Apples taken advantage of it with BSD, Samba, KHTML, X11 and more. Now lets see if Apples willing to up the ante enough to make things truly interesting.

Tabbed browsing, one-button mice, OS X for x86—Id love to hear your take. Write to me at