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Hidden Dimensions -- Apple's focus vs. Vista Vision

by John Martellaro
April 3rd, 2006

And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

-- Steve Jobs to Business Week, Oct. 12, 2004

Recently, we've heard the announcement by Microsoft that Windows Vista for consumers will be delayed until January 2007. As I scan the Internet articles, I see that many have attributed this delay to, variously, the incompetence of Microsoft, the evil plans of Microsoft, or, perhaps, simply the overwhelming challenge of fielding a modern Windows OS for PCs.

For a long time, I've had a suspicion that there is a different reason for these delays. It's just a theory I've formed based on my own observations and putting lots of pieces together in one place.

Bear with me for a paragraph or two while I set this up. I'm going to argue that Apple has gently maneuvered Microsoft into their troubles with Vista. Of course, Microsoft is solely responsible for its own problems, but the history of the relationship between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs has, I believe, contributed to those Vista delays.

The first thing we all know is that during 1995-97, Apple lost control of the business market. Back when the character of the competition between Apple and Microsoft was simply the OS, Apple felt that it had the upper hand. But as times changed and the business market matured in its use of computers, IT managers needed something Apple wasn't able to supply: a capable back office system with authentication and management tools. Apple appeared to be ambivalent about this loss of the business market, and a series of poor CEOs failed to understand the evolution of business requirements and failed to bring clarity to Apple's vision.

As Microsoft seized control of the enterprise in the late 90s Apple flailed about because its own OS was becoming obsolete, and they lost further ground. And since there was a lot more money to be made doing business with business, Microsoft prospered. Finally, however, Apple started getting its OS act together with Mac OS X as a result of the purchase of NeXT. Steve's return combined with a modern OS allowed Apple to lay out a vision, and the vision would be to focus on the consumer. It's was Steve Jobs' vision to do one thing well instead of being all things to all people, and that vision would lay the ground work for Apple's OS success.

It's not enough to have a vision. One must analyze the expected results of that vision and make decisions that exploit the projected outcomes. I believe a decision was made to drive Microsoft into a bind with Apple's disciplined consumer focus. This was because Steve knew that Bill hates to lose and wants to one-up everything Apple does. Knowing that weakness, Apple decided to:

  • Exploit Microsoft's greed and over-confidence
  • Exploit Mr. Gates' fascination with Apple's nimbleness and innovation
  • Leverage Apple's consumer orientation unfettered by business constraints
  • Leverage the fact that Apple's sales are fueled by the purchase authority of individuals and the emotional reaction customers have to Apple products
  • Emphasize OS security - knowing that the consumer Internet would likely become a more and more dangerous place.

I don't think this was a war plan written out in detail. I think it was the gut instinct of a very smart Apple CEO who nursed the plan along and let it flourish.

That maturation of the business use of computers that I just mentioned happened to come along at a time when the Internet was maturing itself and brought with it grave security issues. The timing couldn't have been worse for Microsoft. It forced businesses into monumental measures to protect themselves at the very time when Microsoft's Windows 98/2000 was unprepared to deal with it. And so, divided between the lucrative and cushy-safe business market and the consumer market won by default, Microsoft mismanaged their response to the threat to consumers.

Many business customers don't know how easy they've had it with their PCs. Tons of hardware, routers, firewalls, proxy servers, expensive software tools, spam filters, SMTP server dictionary attack defenses, anti-virus tools, all paid for by businesses to protect their operations, can create a false sense of security in the work place. However, when the average Joe buys a beautiful Sony Vaio notebook for home use, he is, generally, quite unprepared to duplicate all the hardware and software that protects his office PC. About five years ago, it didn't matter.

Now it does.

Simultaneously, we have the "envy effect" of Microsoft. Whatever Apple does, Microsoft copies. Why? Microsoft is a needy company. They don't have the charisma of Apple. The monopolistic company nevertheless wants your love and admiration. Sparked by Apple, the traditionally stodgy business company now wants to be a fun company and sell you fun toys -- an Xbox, a music player, a video player, a home entertainment system -- and have an OS that supports all the cool digital life integration things that Apple's iLife does.

But to do that, Microsoft must make grotesque engineering compromises in its OS. After all, Microsoft's enterprise OSes are so darned complex that a healthy business can be made with MS certification programs. They are so complex that IT managers can keep their jobs by bludgeoning the CEO with complexities that only an army of specialists can manage. For years, IT managers have been proud of the fact that they have a no-nonsense business architecture from Microsoft, not fun toys that employees love to love. Now, how can you take this Windows Vista OS, cleverly designed to cater to all the business agendas that Microsoft has built, and then have it work well on a small notebook computer in the hands of, say, a technically inexperienced young professional who just wants to post vacation photos on the Internet for Grandma to see?

It's hard. It's really hard.

But small potatoes for America's largest, most powerful software company, right?

Occasionally, current and former Apple employees wonder about Apple's enterprise focus. What I think I have learned is that Apple will not allow organizational structure or engineering decisions to emphasize business needs in preference to the consumer needs -- so that the products and OS can remain lean, unfettered, and consumer focused. Not, however, because Apple cannot be competent in the enterprise; rather, it's because of a strategy to avoid the trap that Apple wants Microsoft to fall into.

Namely, how is that nominally formal and high-brow business OS from Microsoft going to be re-engineered to cater to an ever-increasing consumer market for music, videos, and the digital lifestyle. It'll be a tall order to shake XP's reputation for leaking like a sieve, allowing all kinds of malware in, destroying people's privacy and finances. And it'll have to sit behind consumer-grade defenses that pale in comparison to modern business hardware.

Of course, Vista's improved security for the consumer is good for the enterprise. But, I think, all of a sudden, Microsoft realizes that if they are going to compete in the high definition living room, earn back consumer trust, be a viable OS that can live on an 8th grader's notebook computer and coexist with an iPod, and on top of that, be a platform that can engage in unrestricted warfare against Apple, the scope of their nominally business OS has to creep much more than they had planned back in 2001 when the iPod was first launched. As a result, that perceived pressure to out-do Apple put stress on the design of Vista.

This management understanding (such as it is) of the scope of what Windows Vista must accomplish is what causes the frustrations of the Microsoft bloggers who just want a focused, lean, and reliable OS.

I strongly suspect that Longhorn's ambitious business projects had to be simplified or thrown out to cater to fun consumer projects. Security emerged as a new priority. Meanwhile, concerns might have arisen that simple, beautiful GUI philosophies to entice consumers might not sit well with no-nonsense IT Managers. Conflicts likely cropped up between internal consistency, Win-32 backwards compatibility, and third party security tools. The need for different versions of the OS, catering to different customer classes, emerged with corresponding support and software maintenance issues.

The bottom line is that Microsoft's success and pre-occupation with business puts them behind the power curve with respect to OS security and the digital lifestyle; and maybe that's okay, but when that's combined with their covetous desire to compete with Apple's well-thought-out, consumer focused OS and fun consumer technologies, it has caused them to build a highly compromised OS. A split-personality OS. A kitchen sink OS.

What's the impact of that decision? To be all things to all people with a new OS? How does consumer support of an OS of this magnitude drain the resources and morale of Microsoft? How will consumers react to an OS so large and complex? How much longer can a monster PC OS with roughly 50 million lines of code contain and fulfill the business ambitions of one company that tries to be everywhere, do everything, and compete against everyone?

That's the bind I believe Apple, with its "just-say-no" OS strategy and fabulously successful music and digital lifestyle business, has seduced Microsoft into. And that's the reason, from my perspective, for the continual delays and problems with Vista.

But small potatoes for America's largest, most powerful software company, right?


References: The Seed of Apple's Innovation

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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