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Apple's understated Net role

Macworld Expo While Apple has steered clear of the browser and Net standards battles, its technologies have been important behind the scenes.

Macworld Expo While Microsoft (MSFT), Netscape Communications (NSCP), and Sun Microsystems (SUN) have consumed most of the Internet limelight, Apple Computer (AAPL) has steered clear of the bruising browser and Net standards battles.

But even though it may have sought a lower profile, tried-and-true Apple technologies such as the Macintosh and QuickTime have had a significant, behind-the-scenes impact on the Internet.

The company's Net strategy is a straightforward extension of its broader approach to computing: to apply its legendary flair for multimedia and intuitive, easy-to-use software design to the Internet. Using the Mac as the basis for its efforts, Apple's goal is to make exploring the Internet as effortless as possible.

Similarly, the company has tried to make designing and servicing Web sites easier for the Mac's legions of artistically inclined users.

"Our strategy is centered around the Mac's popularity in publishing and design," said Larry Tesler, vice president of AppleNet, the Apple division formed last year to focus on the Internet.

Apple has shown little stomach for exerting itself in the cutthroat Web browser and server markets, leaving Microsoft, Netscape, and others to fight it out for themselves. Still, the company hasn't entirely abandoned these markets either.

Last May, Apple introduced CyberDog, a suite of Net applications based on its OpenDoc technology that includes a browser, email client, and Usenet news reader. But Apple has resisted marketing CyberDog aggressively, and the software has failed to catch on with significant numbers of users.

Cyberdog could get a boost later this month though. Today, Apple said it will bundle the CyberDog 1.2 program with System 7.6, the latest version of the Mac OS. Apple has said it will incorporate Netscape's Navigator browser as a component within CyberDog later this year.

Apple has also shied away from getting into the Web server market. Ironically, though, the Mac OS has become a hit with Web masters through third-party server products. According to an October survey by the Georgia Tech Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center, two Mac Web servers, Quarterdeck's WebSTAR and the MacHTTP shareware server, accounted for 37 percent of Web servers on the Net.

The company does offers a hardware and software package called the Apple Internet Server Solution, but it relies on Quarterdeck's WebSTAR server, not a Web server of its own. Similarly, today the company posted a beta version of Personal Web Sharing, a Web server for Mac workstations licensed from Maxum Development.

"After Unix, the Mac is the second most popular Web server platform," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of Gyroscope, a San Francisco consulting firm. "The main reason being that a lot of people creating Web content are creating content on Macs. I don't think any of the NT solutions are quite as easy as what's available on the Mac."

"Mac servers aren't the fastest in the world, but they're easy to administer," Tesler added.

He added that Apple's QuickTime video format has also become a standard on many Web sites. In addition, Apple has promoted a stripped-down version of its Mac OS, Pippin as the basis for inexpensive Net access devices.

Some analysts believe Apple's Internet efforts have lagged behind innovations from Netscape, Microsoft, and Sun.

"The fact that Apple was distracted by all of its problems last year was a hindrance, and that kept them behind the curve," said James Staten, industry analyst for Dataquest.

During 1996, financial crises, product shortages, and decisions about the future of its OS wracked the company, overshadowing its Net strategy. And while Apple dealt with more pressing issues, Netscape and Microsoft became nearly synonymous with the Internet.

"I think Apple is way behind," Staten said. "They started out making noise that they were going to be a leader in this space. Microsoft has passed them over. They've attached to standards much more quickly [than Apple has]."

In March of last year, Apple announced that it would shut down its eWorld online service less than two years after it was launched. eWorld faced stiff competition from established online services such as CompuServe and America Online, but it was also sideswiped by the explosion of interest in the Internet.

Microsoft's Microsoft Network was also caught off guard by the Net, but the company quickly revamped the service so it was based on Internet standards.

Apple has also fallen behind Microsoft in providing solid Java support on its OS. Developers have criticized the technology for not functioning as well on the Mac as on Windows 95 and Unix. In response, Apple is trying to improve the stability of Java on the Mac by creating its own Java engine, the Mac OS Runtime for Java. The company plans to incorporate the software into its OS later this year.

One Mac software developer said that he is more disappointed with Apple's marketing of its technology than the technology itself.

"Microsoft is much better at marketing," said the developer, who declined to be named. "Is Apple where they should be on the Internet? They've got a lot of work to do. But so does everyone else."

In 1997, Apple will focus on a number of technologies that could bolster its reputation as an Internet leader. This week, the company release the beta version of AppleShare IP 5.0, a new edition of its AppleShare networking technology that is based on the Internet's TCP/IP protocol. AppleShare IP 5.0 could make the Mac even more popular as an Internet server platform.

Apple has also released a promising new technology called HotSauce Meta Content Format, a format that allows programmers to easily generate a variety of graphical interfaces, such as a 3D view, for navigating through a Web site.

According to developers, Apple's recent acquisition of Next Software could also lead to a stronger Internet message from the company. As part of the acquisition, Apple will take over WebObjects, a popular Next Web programming tool.

Apple will also produce a hybrid of the Next OS and the Mac as early as the end of 1997 that could include multitasking and memory protection. The features could further enhance the Mac's use as a Web server platform.

"There's no question that Next adds to Apple's Internet story," said Jean Belanger, chairman and CEO of Metrowerks, a developer of Mac programming tools.