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Apple: Don't flub it again

Steve Jobs is betting the house on turning the Mac into a digital hub. But CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Apple is doomed to remain a small fry if it ignores the corporate market.

Welcome to today's multiple-choice quiz. Apple Computer is: (a) the top design shop in the computer industry; (b) the manufacturer of the best PC on the market; or (c) destined to forever remain a prisoner of its own success.

Actually, the answer is all of the above.

What can I write that hasn't already been written in the month and a half since the latest iMac's January launch? The system is without a doubt a piece of art and lives up to the purple prose of praise spilled in its honor. Not long ago, I ran a friend's new iMac through its paces, concluding the evening suffering from an acute case of computer envy.

Now the bad news.

If you think Apple's digital hub strategy is going to seriously expand its lame 4 percent-plus share of the domestic computer market, I'd like to interest you in some Florida swampland.

The problem here isn't the technology. The problem is a wishful belief that millions of PC users will switch to the Macintosh simply because it's the better platform for hosting digital media and music.

The Mac got pegged as the cool, easy, fun machine. That typecasting was hard enough to shed, though truth be told, Apple didn't exert itself to make the systems more corporate-friendly. Sure, lots of them--including yours truly--will be only too glad to bid sayonara to Windows and jump across this digital divide. But that gets to the heart of what's really wrong about Apple--what has always been wrong about Apple, ever since Steve Jobs' first incarnation as CEO: the company's congenitally poor job of reaching out to IT users.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda
Had Apple lavished as much energy on enterprise-level buyers as it invested understanding the needs of consumers and niche professionals, the current constellation of forces in the computing universe might look quite different.

Years ago, Apple first tried to infiltrate IS during the dawn of desktop publishing with a Trojan horse strategy. Time after time, the Mac proved its superiority over the PC for specific, departmental--often creative--tasks. The initial landing, so to speak, was a success.

But the Mac never got off the beachhead. You got the impression Apple was more keen on waiting for the kids of today to mature into the business consumers of tomorrow. It sure didn't work out according to plan.

After graduating to the ranks of corporate America, these stealth battalions of Apple lovers were peremptorily assigned PCs by IS departments, whose ideas about the Macintosh dated back to those obnoxious, anti-corporate Super Bowl ads of the mid-1980s.

It may be impossible for the leopard to shed its spots, but Apple could make more headway into the corporate world--even at this late date--if it had a mind to solve the problem. Early on, the Mac got pegged as the cool, easy, fun machine. That typecasting was hard enough to shed, though truth be told, Apple didn't exert itself to make the systems more corporate-friendly.

"Volvo equals safe. It would be virtually impossible to make Volvo equal sexy," said one ex-Apple exec. "Apple equals cool, easy, fun. These are not typically attributes that corporations look for in a platform."

In the law of increasing returns, once a platform (or way of thinking) achieves critical mass, it gets easier and easier for that platform to dominate. It may not be the best product out there, but it's the one people are most comfortable using.

Missed chances
In 1994, few people sent e-mail to people outside their own companies. In the intervening seven years, an entire network infrastructure was built up as the Internet moved front and center into the corporate world. Strangely, Apple never figured out a way to find a place in that new world order.

There were isolated victories, but most corporate buyers simply ignored the Mac. Sure, the machines may have been hipper, but they were still a pain in the rear to integrate with existing systems on the network. That was a huge blown opportunity. At a point when people were increasingly using average computer systems to run a few apps, send e-mail and surf the Web, Apple was more keen on spending its money on the "Think different" campaign--which was just another way of saying, "Screw MIS."

"Apple is incredibly insular," said another former Apple insider. "They're on a different planet talking about different things. The iMac may be a piece of art, but in building great products, Apple shut off the rest of the world and opted for a very narrow approach."

It may be impossible for the leopard to shed its spots, but Apple could make more headway into the corporate world--even at this late date--if it had a mind to solve the problem.

The trouble is that it just doesn't give a damn.