How to View What's Hot and What's Not at Apple

Wednesday's Hidden Dimensions column mentioned some observations, maybe not iron clad indicators of Apple's direction, but enough to get a healthy discussion going. Namely, it would be crazy to suggest that Apple is losing interest in classic computing vs the sex appeal of the iPhone. Sorting it out requires perspective.

Apple sells millions of Macs each quarter. It's their bread and butter. Apple conducts the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) every summer. Apple hired Jordan (Mr. BSD) Hubbard to work on Mac OS X. Mac OS X has full UNIX certification. Snow Leopard looks to be a major step forward in UNIX-based OS technology. So what's the problem?

Despite all this, I have wondered in the past how whether Apple's executives view Mac OS X. Is it a stepping stone to the Next Big Thing or is it an end in itself for the UNIX community? It's both.

Apple is a company that likes to consider itself on the bleeding edge. It moves forward fast and leave old technologies behind. If there's something hot, like the iPhone, then Apple employees are wise to jump in that bandwagon because one never knows how fast Apple will coldly leave your pet technology in the dust. That's part of the culture of Apple. A good example of sensing and getting on the bandwagon is Scott Forstal leaving the Mac OS X group to become head of iPhone software. I know of others.

The problem with that mentality is that, amidst the excitement and momentum of new ideas and technologies, things that many people consider sacred sometimes lose a high level of visibility. That's happening right now with the iPhone sex appeal vs. desktop Macs.

Here's what makes things so hard to analyze. Apple has a lot of people working on Macs and Mac OS X. Apple has some seriously capable people like Bertrand Serlet and Jordan Hubbard supporting Mac OS X. But history has shown that if your Apple team, despite the constraints placed on it by Apple Corporate Communications, can't maintain a high level of sex appeal, the rest of the company moves on.

Someday, a gesture based multi-touch OS will supplant the Mac interface. However, it's not going to happen soon. In the meantime, what customers want is an apparent commitment by Apple to the very best of everything Mac. When little things fall through the cracks, they fret. So sometimes it's a challenge for the Mac and Mac OS X team to communicate their passion, and then customers grumble. Or they do communicate, but some customers don't hear the message.

Some may view this as customer whining. Most will agree that Apple will be in the Mac and Mac OS X business for a long time. What's a challenge is for Apple's Mac side of the business to market itself well, work even more closely with the UNIX community, and somehow hold its own despite the iPhone extravaganza.

Often, senior executives start to feel the thrill of the kill when it comes to something like the iPhone. The Mac business is stable, but might not ever exceed 15 percent of the PC market. All bets are off with the iPhone, and the sky's the limit. So every day, Apple executives rush to work and salivate over the potential success of the iPhone and consider the Mac business simply a baseline. It's simply a matter of a limited radar screen for any human being.

That feeling percolates into the customer base and every slight, every compromise in the Mac product line is seen as a potential problem by worried, loyal Mac customers. It's a fact of life in the Apple world, but having a cool, sensible perspective on a complex situation with Apple can really help allay unfounded fears.