Apples Panther OS: Is This the One?

Could the latest version of Mac OS X vault the Mac into competition for the enterprise desktop? Only if Apple can overcome its old habits.

Dont you wonder what it would take to get Apple Computer to resurge in the market? While I havent worked with Apple as an analyst since it killed the Newton in the mid-90s, its still facing some of the same hurdles to acceptance in the general market. Could the new Version 10.3 of Mac OS X (code-named Panther) help Apple finally make the leap?

Back when I was involved with the company, Id stressed that the Mac would make new inroads if it cooperated better with the prevalent Windows infrastructure. That way, people could bring in Apple machines and—much as Windows 95 moved into businesses—the users would become the new channel. But until that came to pass, Apples stunning industrial design and user interface would be trumped by its lack of compatibility on the network. (Software compatibility was becoming less of an issue thanks to the emphasis on hosted applications with browser interfaces.)

In those days, Macs were just too different, but Mac OS X seems to have closed the gap—most notably with the 2002 release, Mac OS X 10.2 (a k a Jaguar). Jaguar would work well with Microsofts Active Directory; the only problem was, at that time, Active Directory was experiencing some very prominent teething pains. (Deployments were bouncing, mostly because of dependencies that had not been anticipated.)

While the initial versions of Mac OS X represented an incredible improvement over the classic Mac OS, for most users it represented a bigger leap (and a higher cost) than the benefits it promised.


Apples early emphasis of the OS Unix core caused some consternation among IT pros. As one told me, "Ill be damned if Im going to put Unix on general user desktops." Unix carries with it the stigma of higher cost, and even the impression of excessive cost can do a lot of damage.

A lot of things have changed since Jaguar, mostly on the Windows side. The Windows platform appears to be under nearly constant threat of disruptive attack, Microsofts licensing changes have created concerns, and Apple has continued to lose market share. This last factor has compelled Apple to make a solution more acceptable to the market; at least on paper, Panther looks much more acceptable to that market.

Panther is better able to work in an Active Directory environment (and there are far more of those now then there were when Jaguar shipped); it will also work better in an NT Domain or Windows workgroup. Its built-in e-mail system works with Microsoft Exchange, and it continues to enjoy the support of Microsofts Mac Office team. (I still think the Mac version of this product is better than the Windows version.)

One big limitation remains: Apple, like Sun, is a vertically integrated company. Once you are on the Apple platform, your choices are reduced; after buying into it, enterprises cant effectively bid Apple against any other vendor, like Dell or HP, because of prohibitive switching costs. And Apples conundrum is becoming worse: Vertical companies are increasingly locked out of organizations that require competitive bidding as part of their post-Enron financial controls.

Perhaps Apple should consider Palms recent move to separate its hardware and software units. Strategically, it encourages better hardware and supports competitive bids.

In the end, Panther is an incredible product whose fate is balanced between the compelling advantages and crippling disadvantages of its corporate parent, itself caught between the computer world of the 70s and the future of appliance PCs. Mobile Devices Center Editor Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.