Published on 8 Aug 2005 at 11:24 am |
3 Comments |
Filed under The Cargo Cults of Business, Total Quality Madness, Pathetic Success, Brain Trust, Winners and Losers, Apple Computer and Macintosh Related, Business and Corporation Related, Information Technology.
Most of you catching the title of this article via pings or RSS probably think this is going to be a rant denouncing Apple’s decision to switch to Intel processors. A rant it may be, but that’s not where I’m going. I’m very hardware agnostic; it’s the software angle that continues to concern me in this latest Apple escapade.
Now, I’m the first to admit positive bias where Apple is involved. Where computing is concerned, they make the best product. IMNHSO, the best got better with the switch to OS X. My desk at home has held something with an Apple logo on it since I was loading BASIC programs from my cassette recorder, and I was fan and fool enough to even boast an employee badge for a while. But if I’m such a devout acolyte, what exactly is my problem with these folks? Well, like the I.T. industry back when Macs were still a going concern in business, my problem isn’t with what Apple does. It’s with what they don’t do.
At Cargo Cult, Apple is our darling, our poster-child, our shining example for just about every award we can give, from Pathetic Success to Brain Trust. Sure, Apple is top-of-the-tops in product design. Sure, the iPod is hot stuff. Sure, they are techno-trendsetters par excellence, a veritable sensei to the IKEA’s and IDEO’s. But that’s all window-dressing. It’s all bamboo airframes and coconut-shell headphones. Because none of this is in any way relevant to Apple’s core business, and never has been. All the flash plastics, fly icons, and grinning CEO’s are just a huge coverup for their failure to target and fight for core computing platform marketshare. And, what’s even more staggering– it works! As long as the eye is on the CEO reaching into his black top hat for another rabbit, nobody really pays much attention to the numbers. They are the paragons of personality, they are the sultans of swing, they are the undisputed rulers of all things form over substance. Their fancy footwork can make an entire industry think they actually know what they’re doing. They’ve done it many times before, and once again, we’ll get a ringside seat for the latest encore performance.
I am speaking of the steadfast refusal to just target Redmond and start in with the broadsides. This is the core problem that all the glitz and glitter keeps covering up: Apple just won’t try and take down the neighborhood bully. Now, I don’t know whether Apple actually thinks the glitz and glitter are a product of some sort; that seems like a mistake an advertising company would make. But time and time again, Apple has been placed in a position where they can absolutely conquer the personal computing Universe, and every single time they have backed away rather than duke it out with Gates and Co. Whether this is incompetence or cowardice is a darn good question. Certainly, Apple’s consistent mismanagement of this opportunity has been done to death across the length and breadth of the Net. My point is that there is a pattern to all this madness, and it is about to repeat itself.
Ever since John Sculley (may Wall Street rest his options) was at the helm in the early 1990’s, Apple has had brief epileptic fits where it will refer to itself as a "software company." Mind you, the fits never last long– at least, not for any given CEO– but sooner or later they all seem to do it. Now, most of us jaded Mac cynics regard these grand mac episodes as sudden lucid insights into Apple’s actual situation. For a moment, the CEO is able to apprehend the true state of affairs: Apple doesn’t make boxes, they make an operating system. More to the point, in the grand language of the advertising sorcerors, they offer an unbeatable experience.
But as we’ve seen with Jobs and the Attack of the Clones, the mania quickly passes, and the focus of the CEO– and his lackeys– returns to making boxes that are the very embodiment of flash and glitz, the no-go showboats of the computing world. The iPod is a hit, no argument there. But how else could we get a cheese-grater aluminum frame that looks like it escaped from a WWII B-17? Of course, the design world seems to eat this stuff up, a case I’m sure of the viral engineers somehow embracing the notion of memetic contagion at a personal level. But scrape off that whitewash and what do you have? A Tower of Power that has two hard drive bays. Two! No PC tower manufacturer would even dare to try such a stunt in a battleship of a case like that. There would be a revolt. In the PC world, you get a full-size tower, you expect to be able to cram every spare cubic inch with disk drives. And you expect the cooling options to support that. But not only does Apple cut their installed base loose by going to a SATA-only motherboard (so you can just dump all those IDE drives on the floor), they have the cheek to expect high-end graphics work– which eats disk space like popcorn– to either subsist on two internal drives, or go hang Firewire.
This kind of nonsense throughout their history is why Apple shouldn’t be building boxes. It’s tempting to suggest that Apple just keep a high-end box design group off in a corner somewhere, let the clone warriors do their thing, and start pressing CD-ROMs by the millions. But I don’t think they’d be able to resist the crystal meth that box building clearly is for them. And, congruent with the drug analogy, that’s a dead-end road of dwindling market share. The PC world has shown, conclusively, that reference-standard clones are the way to keep things moving forward on the hardware front. And users want things that are moving forward. Users with even the least need for speed aren’t going to pay premium kilobucks for a Mac when they can get an AMD-64 that buries everything else out there for a fistful of dollars. The PC’s advantage in hardware evolution (not just the capabilities, but the ability of the PC’s clone-based market to rapidly evolve those capabilities) has been seriously hurting the Mac. As part of Apple’s literal change of heart, the redoubtable Register offers a substantive exposition of the current landscape. Apple is at last in a position to just step off the taffrail of the crushing commodity hardware market and swim off into a golden sunset of OS and application profits.
Which, to no end of irony, leaves us with Apple once again in a position to conquer the computing universe. And once again ready, I’m sure, to do their duty to Redmond and muck it up.
I am of course referring here to Apple’s ability to simply port MacOS X to PC hardware. To get it through their head, once and for bloody all, that they are a software company. That they make operating systems and applications, not pretty little boxes. Embrace the 60% margins that go with such a destiny, and cast the commodity forecasting aside. Of course, I’m hardly the first to spot this possibility; I’m even sure I’m among the last to articulate it. For instance, the folks over at The Unofficial Mac Weblog have an interesting take on what Dell selling Macs could mean. As expected, they immediately apprehend that this is (yet another!) chance for Apple to conquer the Universe. Every Mac advocate on the planet has been convinced since Day 1 that if you pit MacOS directly against Windows on Intel hardware, the wave of defections will be staggering. The only thing holding back the flood is Apple’s artificially high hardware prices. As we saw, all too briefly in the clone wars, once you get the hardware cost down, the defectors will come. And if you could dual-boot Aqua with XP? My gosh, there’d be a stampede all the way to Apple’s boardroom. There’s no doubt about it: Apple is once again in the grip of the Jaws of Victory.
And, precisely because they have such a chance, I’m convinced they’ll miss it, once again snatching away defeat. Cowardice against Redmond is a possible reason, but with such a history of missed boats, I think at this point it’s pervasive in the corporate meme pool. Apple just can’t conceive of itself being bold enough and successful enough to take on Microsoft and win, no matter what it takes. Especially when what it will take is giving up those glitzy boxes. It has become conditioned as an institution to take the table scraps Redmond throws it, and not to do anything to disturb that status quo (presumably to prevent Microsoft from cancelling Office for the Mac and causing everyone to switch to Open Office instead). To go to our site analogy, Apple is now so entrenched in the building of their bamboo airframes that they cannot suffer structural aluminum and aeronautical engineering to come into existence lest they imperil the arrival of the sacred cargo of "like, wow!" design.
However, Apple’s 8th chance may not be forthcoming at all. As noted in The Register, Apple’s precipitous switch has got an Osborne effect going that could leave them falling back on their massive cash reserves. Had they planned with their eyes open to just abandon hardware manufacturing, the switch could have been pretty painless. In fact, they could have kept cranking out PPCs under their logo and let Dell (or Sony, or Lenovo) take over the Intel line. It’d be like, the switch is coming, but meanwhile, you can get a PPC that you know is a better machine. If you want something cheaper, you can buy the Dell and Apple gets the software revenue. You can’t say the model doesn’t work; all things Redmond say otherwise. As it is, Apple has defined their own Scylla and Charybdis to navigate. Unfortunately, as in the past, the installed base is along for the ride; I doubt we’ll see Apple change its ways and start responding to user community demands at this late date, no matter how vocal, legitimate, or widespread. (Just ask the erstwhile MacIS forum about Apple’s responsiveness to industry professionals).
For the sake of all of us Mac users out here, who are all desperately hoping that this time Apple will get the transmission downshifted and start making some hay in the PC market, I really hope Apple’s board decides to wake up and smell the whitewash. Mandating that Jobs get OS X ported to a PC clone platform– whether CHRP-like or not– is the most sensible move at this point for any advancement of market share. And if Jobs refuses, it’s time for Apple’s board to remind him– and his successor– of who is really in charge. The moment a board starts thinking it’s CEO is irreplaceable, they’ve embraced a downward spiral of stagnation. Of course, that’s historically not been a problem for Apple. So here’s hoping they at long last decide to throw their weight at the right cause at the right time. Two years from now, the hottest thing running on an Asus motherboard may be OS X. But unless Apple gets their act together, ten years from now, the hottest thing running on any motherboard is going to be KDE, and Apple will be in a face-off with Fossil and Casio in a mall kiosk near you…
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