Hidden Dimensions - A Major Apple Weakness Could Harm Mac OS X

January 2nd, 2007

You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.

-- Albert Einstein

We all know that Mac OS X is a superior operating system. It's easy to use by novices and experts alike. It has a modern infrastructure which includes seldom discussed items such as launchd and the Common Data Security Architecture. It has great attention to security, consistency, and minimizes tinkerability while meeting the needs of many business and technical professionals.

Apple makes a big fuss about Mac OS X. Each version is eagerly awaited with great anticipation. We're all particularly excited about Leopard. And so we all hope that Mac OS X will reign supreme for all time.

Maybe not. What what if Apple, someday, were to lose some of their focus on Mac OS X? I'm not thinking about next year, but I am thinking about the not too distant future when the dust settles on Apple's consumer electronic ambitions.

One reason I'm thinking about this is that, it seems to me, never has there been more of a gulf between the public perception of Apple and the core competency of Apple -- integrating computer hardware and an operating system. The other reason it comes to mind is an article I wrote previously about Apple and degrees of freedom. Apple doesn't like commitments to end users. They rarely partner with large customer organizations. They will partner with companies like Disney and Intel, but only on the supply side.

In order to ask questions about Apple's long term commitment to Mac OS X, one has to look at instances where Apple has made firm commitments to customers. There aren't many.

A Tale of Two Stories

What started me thinking about all this was the combination of two stories here at TMO on Wednesday. The first was the blog from David Sobotta back on December 25th about how Apple show managers in Cupertino, clueless about the Federal Market, proceeded to do a lot of stupid things at a federal computer show called FOSE, held every year in Washington D.C.

The second story was about a very technical technique for combining launchd and rsync to trigger an automated backup when an external drive is connected.

The combination of the two stories reminded me of the stark difference between the technology of a UNIX operating system, the public perception of Apple, and how Apple manages its image.

Mr. Sobotta's Blog described an incident that was typical of Apple. It all started when a bright young fellow at Apple started to work on an extensive security briefing document for publication. As I recall, the original draft was on the order of 30 pages and went into some very important fundamentals of Mac OS X's security architecture and features. But, of course, before such documements can be released to the public, they must be reviewed by Marketing Communications with a fine attention to detail and image. In the end, after review, the security briefing was a shadow if its former self and diluted in the extreme.

It requires some patience to find the final version of that paper. One reference, in fact, starts at the top of Apple's IT Pro site but the link to the security tech brief is dead which is rather confusing. It's probably just an oversight.

Another link is at the very bottom of Apple's Mac OS X features page. That link is active and will allow you download the watered down 13 page paper.

When I recall the process involved, I am reminded that there is a thick layer of insulation between Apple's technical people and their technical customers. This has been an irritation before, and it could become a problem in the future.

A lot of the material that is directed towards these kinds of customers is nothing more than links to stories about Apple as opposed to material created by technical professionals within Apple and communicated to end users. Even the Apple inspired site MacResearch.org is simply an effort to allow technically deep professionals to share their knowledge with other users because Apple, fundamentally, is uncomfortable doing it themselves.

The reason is that Apple is a company that's all about image, and they would prefer not to have technical professionals communicating directly with customers. In some cases, experience has shown that scientists and engineers don't have the skills to communicate certain messages in a desirable fashion. But Apple, as a UNIX vendor, carries that far overboard.

As a result, highly technical material is, outside of the Apple Developer Connection, either hard to find, watered down, or non-existent. This was a typical complaint to me when I engaged Apple customers in years past. It is a credit to a few very talented individuals at Apple that a wealth of security information related to Smart Cards, Common Criteria, security certifications, and encryption has been published in barely acceptable detail. However, Apple is only one lay-off or two away from completely losing this credibility with its customers.

The Two Faces of Apple

As we approach the release of Leopard, it is more and more evident that the public fuss about Apple, its image building, its foray into consumer electronics with the iTV and possibly an iPod that can make phone calls, is creating a larger and larger gulf between Apple's non-technical consumers and technical professionals.

A company that started out, in its first 25 years, making mostly very nice computers and operating systems, is on the verge of a major shift in its focus and revenues. As more and more of Apple's revenue comes from consumer devices, priorities will shift. Resources, which are always spread thin at Apple, typically get directed towards the latest hot consumer project.

Lest we forget, going to war against Windows, while a formidable foe, is easy in one very important way because the security architecture of Windows is so messed up. Because a comprehensive fix is not forthcoming, Mac OS X will have significant edge in that area for years to come. On the other hand, the home theater market and the cell phone markets are full of pitfalls, traps, and clever competitors. These markets, while a huge opportunity, will distract Apple.

One sign that a loss of focus is at least possible is that Apple goes out of its way to avoid long term relationships with customers. Products are abandoned without notice and replaced by new ones. Apple avoids long term business relationships with research agencies and universities in advanced computation. What commitments Apple does have are short term or easily broken. Apple spokespersons, those who are press-certified, are typically non-technical. Apple has few Ph.Ds on staff who are empowered to work closely with customers on long-term research projects. Apple declines to sponsor important events, technical TV specials and conferences.

Mr. Sobotta pointed out in his Blog cited above that Apple doesn't allow third party vendors in its booth at the largest professional conferences. The very people who are most technically capable of demonstrating technical solutions on Mac OS X are denied booth access in favor of Apple volunteers who are not qualified to demonstrate the most capable and advanced software that appeals to conference attendees. (And industry analysts.) The Blog went on to point out that Mr. Jobs forbids literature in the booths. Technical professionals go home from a show loaded with dreams. They look at brochures and technical data from companies like HP and Dell and study, analyze and dream their next computer project. But they get nothing from Apple to sit on their office desk every day, cry out in four colors, and remind them of their dreams.

The technical community in the U.S. only has so much patience. They require a dialogue with Apple, not a monologue. They require some very serious technical interchange with Apple engineers and scientists, but there are precious few hired by Apple who have the charter to conduct collaborations. Technical documents come from Apple highly filtered and diluted, and as a result, Apple never feels a sense of partnership with its enterprise customers.

Don't misunderstand me. Mac OS X is a superior OS. It retains a special status within Apple and makes their beautifully designed computers worth buying. Mac OS X is also the hub of Apple's digital lifestyle, making operations with video, audio, design and creativity a joy. Leopard will be terrific.

My concern is this. As Apple moves more and more into consumer electronics, its tendency to favor image over substance and block serious technical cooperation with enterprise customers will become more and more at odds with what it takes to deliver a robust UNIX OS. Apple tends to hide behind their Marketing Communications division, a group of people who shudder with fear when presented with technical material to publish. So they water it down until it becomes useless.

Apple's aloof approach, technical shyness, and reluctance to support long-term research with customers is one of its biggest weaknesses. In the long run, that will harm the best UNIX OS ever conceived.

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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