Will Mac OS X Panther Help or Hobble Small Developers?

Some small Mac developers worry that Apple is co-opting their products with Version 10.3. But others say the market's still open for well-defined Mac software.

Do the 150-plus new features in Apple Computer Inc.s "Panther" Mac OS X 10.3 upgrade elbow small developers aside or offer them new opportunities? The response depends on which small developer you ask.

In the former camp: Sam Caughron, co-founder and president of Proteron LLC, who posted an open memo on Proterons Web site. The memo characterized Panthers new application-switching feature as a "near-pixel duplication of a Proteron product, LiteSwitch X."

Caughron told eWEEK.com his memo was "misunderstood by a lot of people, but it was understood by a lot of people.

"We dont begrudge Apple," he said, adding that Apple did not use any of Plattsmouth, Neb.-based Proterons code and that he thinks it "absurd" to claim that Proteron invented any of the functionality in LiteSwitch X.

Instead, Caughron pointed to "the trend that Apple seems to have lost touch with some developers," especially the smaller ones. For these small developers, the capabilities in the updated Mac OS X obviate the need for the very products these small developers have been shipping.

Caughron said he had received largely positive feedback from customers and developers alike, even if comments on some online forums were more negative. He said he believes it helped initiate a dialog between small developers and Apple and suggested that their needs may gain a better hearing from the Mac maker.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple declined to comment on the memo.

At the same time, other software developers said the evolution of features within the operating system is to be expected, and third parties must adapt along with the OS.

"Feature creep is their job," said Bob Vasaly, vice president of sales and marketing at Netlock Technologies Inc. of Brea, Calif. The company recently released a new version of its virtual private network client for Panther.

According to Vasaly, one of the duties of a product manager is to notice where the product is lacking a feature and try to rectify that situation. Although Mac OS X includes some built-in VPN support, and this support has been improving, Vasaly said the standard feature set doesnt compete directly with Netlocks product. "You cant be in the business of selling generic solutions," Vasaly said, noting that Netlocks client software is tightly integrated with Nortel and Cisco switches. Meanwhile, Panther includes expanded support for the IP Security (IPSec) protocol. But still, Vasaly said, a companys plan must to include this chance for feature creep: "You are at risk."

/zimages/5/28571.gifCheck out more of Panthers many features aimed at enterprise customers here.

Netlock Chief Cryptographer David Stoller noted that Microsoft Corp. also does the same thing on the Windows side when it rolls in features first seen in non-Microsoft products.

According to Stoller, Apple was "great" to work with when his company was developing its VPN client update. However, Vasaly added that Apple was "less enthused about helping us on the marketing side—they never helped us" in trying to penetrate the enterprise market.

Still, a system software update doesnt necessarily mean ill tidings for all developers.

Although he said hes sympathetic to the situation of affected developers, President and CEO Rich Siegel of Bedford, Mass.-based Bare Bones Software Inc. observed that with the right product design, the update can actually increase the user base for a third partys software.

Siegel offered the example of his own companys Mailsmith e-mail application. While Mac OS X ships with Mail, a fairly comprehensive client, Siegel added that starting people on a more "casual" e-mail software can lead them to migrate to a more "power-user" solution, such as Mailsmith. "Apple is enlarging our customer base for us," he said.

Another example is Apples strategy of bundling its iMovie and iDVD video-editing and DVD-authoring applications with its hardware to provide entry points for the companys professional-level Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro (with their professional-level price tags). "In conventional thinking," Siegel said, "Apple would be competing against itself."

Overall, Siegel said, an operating system shipping with an "80 percent solution"—that is, an application that will appeal to 80 percent of users—can help sell more-advanced products.

"Theres plenty of opportunity for a motivated developer to produce a product," Siegel said. However, any developer hoping to come up with the sole solution in a product niche will be "invariably disappointed."

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