Apples Enterprise Play

The corporate wheels may be turning again, as Apple preps both hardware and software designed to play nicely with Windows and other Unix systems on heterogeneous networks.

For some of us with a stake in advance knowledge of Apples moves, the Monday kickoff of Apple Computers Worldwide Developers Conference represented sweet vindication of long-simmering personal obsessions.

Daniel Drew Turner (who covered CEO Steve Jobs WWDC keynote speech in San Jose, Calif.) and I finally got Apples official line on Jaguar, the next major enhancement to Mac OS X wed first reported last year.

My friend Nick dePlume of Think Secret was at long last rewarded for his tireless insistence that Apple is working on dedicated, rack-mounted server hardware (an announcement that Jobs has promised to flesh out May 14).

And I was especially gratified that the list of Jaguar-specific features announced at WWDC included InkWell. Back in July 2000, Adam Gillitt and I nailed this handwriting-recognition technology, based on the venerable Rosetta code used in Apples ill-starred Newton PDA; ever since then, Ive been relentlessly predicting InkWells debut at the Next Big Mac Trade Show. (I figure that if you forecast the appearance of the same pet project at every Apple event, youre eventually bound to strike gold.)

But never mind the Mac hacks. After all, Apples presentation was focused on satisfying a constituency that really matters: third-party developers who need to get behind Apples OS efforts if the migration to bigger and better Mac OS X technologies is to be a reality.

Meanwhile, Apple also took some giant steps toward the enterprise customers who (until the advent of the consumer-huggable Mac OS X) comprised the majority of Unix users.

Those of us who get a vicarious thrill out of matching wits with Apples executive branch have been waiting for the company to make new overtures to the enterprise market practically since the day then-Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio announced the acquisition of Jobs NeXT Software at the end of 1996.

The sturdy Unix underpinnings of NeXTs OpenStep OS, the prowess of NeXTs WebObjects application server and development tools, the anointment by incoming iCEO Jobs of buddy and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison to the Apple board of directors—all these signs and wonders offered early hints that under the prodigal Jobs, Apple would try to take a bite out of Windows as well as commercial Unix platforms like Solaris.

Only it never came to pass. Instead, Jobs rapidly shifted the spotlight to the neglected consumer side of the Apple stage when he introduced the iMac in May 1998. While the company has continued to develop hardware and software focused on the relatively narrow professional publishing and multimedia markets as well as on educational institutions, Jobs Apple has professed itself too busy emulating the consumer stylings of Sony to take on the higher reaches of enterprise IT.

Now the corporate wheels may be turning again, as Apple preps both hardware and software designed to play nicely with Windows and other Unix systems on heterogeneous networks.

While they still have to attend the closed-door sessions during the rest of this weeks WWDC to get all the details behind Mondays public pronouncements, my Mac developer friends are both pleased and surprised at Apples readiness to mix it up with the other corporate citizens.

They hailed Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller when he characterized Windows users and developers as "our friends"; they were even more pleased when Apple proved the point by announcing that the Jaguar generation of Mac OS X will bolster support for a welter of cross-platform protocols, including ActiveDirectory, LDAP (Open Directory), Bluetooth, SMB browsing and sharing, IPV6 and IPSec, the CUPS print engine, and Virtual Private Network (PPTP).

"Its pretty clear that the new Mac OS is being built for business integration with the new features being added in the MS-Windows support area," one attendee wrote me after the event.

"From SMB (Windows file sharing protocol) browsing and sharing (Windows machines will be able to see Macs when file sharing is turned on) to native VPN (virtual private network) support and ActiveDirectory, the reasons for admins to disallow Mac OS X boxes in a Windows world shrink dramatically." Amen to that!

Meanwhile, Apple even moved to take the lead in some areas that should be close to enterprise users hearts. Consider Rendezvous, a new API that can let a variety of computers and other devices seek out each others IP addresses for file sharing, printing or even streaming media. "In the enterprise world, how many times does a project sit waiting because a key person is out of contact?" my developer buddy mused. "Lack of communication stalls and stifles productivity. The same could be said for files and other content; many times in a collaborative environ, the network infrastructure is made more complicated than necessary simply to support information availability."

Hes waiting to hear Apple detail the security features of Rendezvous before he embraces it as an enterprise standard. But if those protections are in place, he said, "the need for an intermediate file server (and attendant complexity) for small- or medium-sized workgroups evaporates."

Last weeks announcement of the 17-inch all-in-one eMac gave Apples important education operation a shot in the arm; this weeks survey of Mac OS X enhancements due at the end of the summer will boost the platforms cred with IT pros (as well as end users excited about such new niceties as handwriting recognition, chat, and enhanced 2-D and 3-D graphics performance).

Next week, Jobs promises, the company will keep the momentum going when it details the specs of the aforementioned rack-mounted server. Already, however, professional users whove been forced to use repurposed desktop machines as Mac OS X servers are saluting the companys willingness to think outside the box.

Rack-mounted, headless operation have been on Mac-friendly system admins wish lists for years now. (During my tenure at MacWEEK, I remember tracking the rise and fall of a stillborn rack-mounted server way back during Apples Spindler administration.)

The rapid evolution of Mac OS X and the associated convergence of Mac and Unix technologies have rendered this remote corner of Apples product landscape fertile indeed. Im hoping next weeks installment of the Apple road show prompts a bumper crop of new Macs on corporate Americas desks—and in its server closets.

What do you think of Apples enterprise moves—and the rest of its WWDC repertoire? Drop me a line and give me an earful.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.