A rare moment of lucidity for Apple

Sometimes, even Apple Computer listens. That rare event occurred just recently, when Apple's anything-but-interim CEO Steve Jobs told Macintosh developers he was abandoning the effort to replace the Mac OS with a new operating system, code-named Rhapsody.

Instead, the company will revamp the current Mac OS and offer it as Mac OS X (the "X" is for 10; there will be no Mac OS 9).

Thus, much of the $US425 million that Jobs received for Next Inc. and the core Rhapsody technology when he sold it to Apple 17 months ago will be thrown into a black hole. The same black hole as Apple's near-decade of wasted investment on new operating systems - from Pink to Copland, from Taligent to Rhapsody and from Pippin to Newton. After all, it's been only about $US1.2 billion.

Still, Jobs made the only realistic decision: developers had been saying for more than a year that they had little or no interest in recreating their Mac programs for Rhapsody. And when Apple promised a Mac compatibility box in Rhapsody, developers decided to take the easy path and simply stick with their existing Mac software. The relevance of Rhapsody was thus unclear to developers and users alike.

The surprise is that Apple heard that advice and acted on it. I've covered Apple for seven years and can't remember the last time that happened for anything significant.

Of course, what Apple does is increasingly irrelevant for business users. The Mac's marketshare - even with Apple's increased sales and its two consecutive quarters of negligible profits - hasn't matched what it was a year ago.

Sure, Apple's share is back up to 4 per cent, but the licensed Mac clone makers accounted for another 1 per cent of the total market a year ago, so the Mac market is still behind as a whole. And even if it hits 5 per cent again, that's a far cry from the 8 per cent to 10 per cent the Mac enjoyed for most of the past decade.

But the recent Mac OS decision does have relevance for the many businesses that use the Mac for publishing, authoring, graphics creation and Web development. Chances are that big businesses have at least one Mac-using department.

Despite the hype from Microsoft, Windows (95, 98 or NT) doesn't offer the font, colour and device support those users need. The Mac still does. And Microsoft product managers have been candid in saying that NT 5 won't have what's necessary to address those needs, either. It'll get closer, but for most high-end content creators, the Mac will still be a necessity.

And that's why Apple's recent decision to stick with its current operating system is important. If your company is flexible enough to support several operating systems for various needs, the Mac platform you intend to support won't require a sea of changes in its operating system - and thus in its application software and low-level drivers.

So, if you decide to upgrade to Mac OS X when it ships (predicted for late next year), you'll simply have to upgrade some of your applications.

And if you don't want the Mac in your corporation but are stuck with it until Microsoft delivers a credible alternative, you know you can invest minimally in that platform and let your Mac users (who probably do most of their own support anyhow) benefit from the advances that Apple does provide.

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Galen Gruman

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