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Time for Apple to decide about .Net

But does it have the will, asks Chris LeTocq who cautions that the company's "walled garden" approach to computing is a losing strategy.

Apple has successfully focused its marketing on the education, publishing and consumer markets, where it has enough critical mass to effectively isolate its customers from the Windows network effect. In these markets the Mac user base is large enough to attract the attention of software developers and creates a community that can interact solely with other Mac OS users.

One of the key elements of Apple's target market strategy is limiting the need for Windows-Mac interaction, protecting its base from the intrusion of another platform.

This strategy now has a limited life. Today the Web experience is the primary application interaction for most Mac consumer users. To a large extent, this is an HTML-only, passive experience. Where a richer experience is offered, Java-based applets work well on both Windows and Mac platforms but are not in wide use. More advanced applications are typically hidden from Mac users. Go to Yahoo Mail on your PC and you have a full rich-text editor. Go to Yahoo Mail on your Mac and the experience is decidedly less rich.

New Web applications
The advent of smart Web applications and services based on Microsoft's .Net framework threatens to overturn Apple's careful positioning. Today, end-user applications on the Web are few and far between. But starting at the end of 2001, expect a range of applications and services built to the .Net framework. Unfortunately for Apple, these applications are exactly the ones most likely to appeal to its consumer base.

More importantly, Apple can expect substantial advertising messaging and communication to its users to subscribe to these services. Without some action from Apple, its users will be locked out of premium Internet services. If Yahoo advertises its downloadable e-mail client and enhanced services built around .Net applications and these are unavailable on the Mac, Apple will need to be ready with a reply. Otherwise, it risks remaining competitive and thus triggers an accelerating migration of Mac users to Windows.

The best way to make sure Mac users remain full Web citizens is for either Microsoft or Apple to port Microsoft's .Net Framework Common Language Runtime (CLR) to the Mac. The problem is who is going to do it. If Apple can't--or won't--invest the necessary resources, then Microsoft will probably eventually do it.

But for Microsoft the least expensive route is to support the Hailstorm .Net services directly in its Macintosh applications. Microsoft could do this without porting the CLR. After all, why provide access to its .Net framework for competitors' applications? The problem for Apple is that while relying on Microsoft solves the challenge for users of Office, that still leaves 50 percent of its active user base without Web application support.

The right decision is for Apple to enlist a development team that is familiar with OS X internals and take on the task of porting the CLR. The result will likely be substantially more in tune with the OS, aesthetically and functionally, than a third-party effort.

Unfortunately, Apple's likely analysis of the problem will be that supporting the CLR conflicts with its current "walled garden" approach. The thinking here being that providing a common application platform will only encourage application vendors to target the CLR rather than a dedicated Mac platform, and that Apple will subsequently lose its cherished differentiation.

Room to maneuver?
If this were Microsoft being concerned about Netscape, then the argument might be valid. However, a more pragmatic analysis suggests that Apple would be able to take advantage of Microsoft's investment in ISV acquisition and benefit from the new applications and users that investment might generate. Apple's developers would similarly be able to take advantage of increased integration with the Web.

Apple's alternatives are limited: A partnership with AOL? Expand iTools and build its own services around WebObjects? Only AOL is likely to be a distant second supplier of Web services. Microsoft's investment in Office for the Mac has been a key leverage point for Microsoft, and it remains potent even after the software giant's well-chronicled antitrust woes.

It is ironic that just as Apple and Microsoft finally introduce more reliable and user-tolerant operating systems, the user's experience and expectation will increasingly be defined by the Web. Steve Jobs has had pragmatic moments before and negotiated with Microsoft over Internet Explorer and Office. It's time for him to step up to the bar again and negotiate a .Net deal. The sooner he does, the better the deal for Apple and its users.