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Apple turns on remote access for OS X

The computer maker quietly releases new software for accessing Mac OS X clients remotely, a move aimed to take advantage of the back-to-school buying season.

    Apple Computer wants Mac enthusiasts out of the driver's seat and using remote control.

    The Cupertino, Calif.-based company on Thursday quietly released new software for accessing Mac OS X clients remotely, a move timed to take advantage of the back-to-school buying season and to better position Apple's operating system for the business market, analysts said.

    Businesses or educational institutions can use the product, Remote Desktop, for real-time screen sharing or managing desktops across the network or over the Internet. Apple's standard pricing is $299 for a 10 client version and $499 for an unlimited number of users. The education market version is priced at $149 and $299.

    The positioning for business is another sign Apple recognizes Mac OS X as a resource for expanding beyond the company's more traditional markets--creative professionals, consumers and education. And Apple is taking the initiative to provide the necessary tools for that move.

    "We certainly serve as the business desktop for many small businesses already," said Tom Goguen, Apple's director of server software. "It's just one more enabler for businesses putting Mac OS X in their environment. If you look at Mac OS X across the board, it's designed to support the things in business environments."

    Remote Desktop, which will run on either the desktop or server version of Mac OS X, evolved from an older Mac OS product called Apple Network Administrator.

    The program's basic features aren't unique. Netopia's Timbuktu, for example, delivers many of the same functions. On the Windows side, Microsoft has bundled some remote access, application sharing and real-time chat--features all found in Remote Desktop--for free with the operating systems. Most of the functions are accessed through Windows Messenger.

    But Apple has thrown in some extras, such as remote administration of 802.11b wireless networks or monitoring students' computer screens, which could have unique appeal.

    "I think the pricing is very aggressive when you consider what it does and other vendors in the same market space," said Rich Whiffen, network architect for a Washington-based trade organization. "It will be a great help to overworked college and high school (system administrators) everywhere. I think this is why it's priced so aggressively in the education channel."

    Apple is also attempting to apply the Mac's notorious ease of use to the typically arduous task of managing a network. Remote Desktop, which supports up to 5,000 users, can be used for desktop management, technical support or to deliver and audit software, among other features.

    "I find it interesting that this product is also designed to accommodate up to 5,000 Macs in 250 Mac groups," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "This indicates that Apple is boosting its business offering and perhaps attempting to add value to its professional products, namely its limited server offering."

    Deal noted that historically Apple server sales accounted for "no more than 1 percent to 2 percent of the company's total revenue. However, applications such as this, and the multiprocessing capabilities of OS X, add credibility to Apple's cautious steps into the corporate enterprise."

    One reason the products dual-market focus makes sense is that "education is very similar to business environments," Goguen said. "Similar features serve very well if you're an IT manager trying to manage a large number, even a small number, of Mac desktops. This is a product that will make the platform that much more manageable and easy to use, from an IT perspective."

    Lessons learned
    Apple appears to have learned a lesson from Microsoft, which has long used critical applications--among them Office--to drive Windows adoption. Not only does Microsoft develop important Windows desktop software, but in the past it timed application releases to coincide with important changes to the operating system.

    Apple released Mac OS X--the most significant upgrade to the operating system since its 1984 introduction--a year ago this month. But software developers didn't rush applications out the door, as Apple worked the kinks out of Mac OS X. Microsoft released the first major Mac OS X application, Office v. X, in November. Adobe's Photoshop 7 for OS X goes on sale next month.

    Needham analyst Charles Wolf predicted Apple "would get a huge upgrade on their install base" of Power Macs after Adobe releases Photoshop 7.

    Apple chose not to wait for developers, introducing some of its own applications, particularly those essential for positioning Mac OS X as a hub for connecting digital cameras and camcorders, creating movies and authoring DVDs. In January, Apple released iPhoto--its most recent digital application--for managing, sharing and printing digital photos. Apple also offers iMovie 2, iTunes 2 and iDVD 2.

    In some ways, Deal sees Remote Desktop as an extension of Apple's existing digital applications, particularly in the classroom.

    "The value of Apple's new Remote Desktop in the classroom is clear, and will undoubtedly be a key product within Apple's stalwart education segment," he said. "The ability to view and manage students' iBooks or iMacs, especially in large classroom settings, is an essential function of the 'digital-age teacher.'"

    A program like Remote Desktop could be crucial for capturing existing Unix business customers as well. Mac OS X is built around Unix, which potentially opens up an untapped market for Apple. The company is betting developers, recognizing the advantages of a mainstream Unix operating system, will port their applications to Mac OS X.

    Remote Desktop could also ease Mac OS X's adoption with network administrators unfamiliar with Unix.

    "I think, currently the "Unix underpinnings" scare a lot of administrators, more from a fear of the unknown than anything else," Whiffen said. "I see nothing but upside to this product; $500 to avoid walking to every OS X Mac? Do you take Visa?"

    But Carl Witthoft, chief research scientist for a Massachusetts-based company, sees a major shortcoming for some schools and definitely many businesses.

    Remote Desktop runs in OS X but can be used to manage or access clients running Mac OS 8.1 through 9.2 or OS X 10.1 or later. The software does not support Windows.

    Witthoft emphasized his comments represent his views and not his company's.

    "Apple should produce software to allow Windows platforms to be accessible (as clients)," he said. "Schools may have networks which are 100 percent Apple machines, but I can guarantee no corporation will."