Apple finally made the move that many have been waiting for with the announcement that its next generation operating system, codenamed Rhapsody, will run on Intel-based machines.
At the company's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California two weeks ago, the company confirmed that Rhapsody on Intel would be delivered at the same time as a release of the software for the Mac - by the middle of next year (see diagram opposite).
Rhapsody on Intel will include the OpenStep yellow box APIs from NeXT Software, the operating system kernel and a Macintosh user interface.
It will feature everything that's planned for the full version of Rhapsody on PowerPCs, except backwards compatibility with current Macintosh applications, through the blue box MacOS layer.
Despite the move, Apple executives have been quick to point out that its strategy remains focused on Rhapsody for PowerPCs. The company believes that by porting Rhapsody to Intel, it'll encourage more developers to write applications for the Apple platform, thereby making its systems more attractive to end users. Ultimately, Apple wants to convert Intel users over to its PowerPC hardware, which it claims runs Rhapsody "faster and better" than Wintel.
But is Apple's cross-platform strategy too little too late? Many industry analysts believe it is, and at least one feels that if anything, trends are actually moving in the other direction. "Users are now standardising on a single platform," said Ken Hause, an analyst for IDC in the US.
Kees Dobbelaar, an analyst with Dataquest in the UK, also doubts Apple's prospects are brighter. He said: "Apple's fundamental problem is that the industry stream is towards Microsoft and Intel. Whatever they implement, whatever money they throw at it, the industry standard is Microsoft and Intel. The decision to run Rhapsody on Intel is a small counter attack, but the tide (against Apple) is too overwhelming."
Nevertheless, Dobbelaar hasn't given up entirely on Apple yet: "There are lots of users and niche markets around that could use Apple. But attacking mainstream office computing, even home computing, is a waste of money."
Dobbelaar referred to the "vast" sums of money Apple has invested in a major UK ad campaign, which kicked off last week. Featuring the theme "Only Apple", the campaign aims to highlight what the company calls its fundamental strengths - "innovative and technically superior products".
According to Apple officials, the ads are designed to reassert the company's traditional brand values of "innovation, creativity, individuality and ease of use".
The campaign will run with full page insertions in weekday national newspapers, double page insertions in Sunday supplements, and 300,000 eight-page inserts in the trade and business press over the next four weeks.
Alan Hely, Apple's UK marketing director, is naturally bullish about the campaign. "The Only Apple concept sums up everything that is great about Apple and its products. There are so many tasks that only an Apple computer can do. Apple has the highest brand loyalty of any brand worldwide," he said.
According to the ad, "only" Apple brings you the fastest notebook in the world.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the company in recent months, Hely believes the tide is turning and that it is time for Apple to "stand up and highlight what it offers. It's about time we went on the offensive.
If you put all the products we have released in the last few months in one room then the message is outstanding."
Hely's sentiments are shared by major Apple users. Tony Adderley, head of IT at the Body Shop, which has 1,200 Macs in the UK, said the company made the decision to go with Apple seven years ago and is confident it will stay with the platform for many years to come.
"Back in 1990, we looked at the total cost of ownership equation that many companies are only just looking at now. We found that for us, Macs were definitely cheaper," he explained.
However, Adderley acknowledged that the decision to go Mac has not been without its problems. "Some packages that people at the company wanted to use only ran on PCs, so we had to bring some in. We now have both (environments)," he noted. The Body Shop currently has 150 PCs in the UK.
Adderley believes Apple's problems have been perpetuated by the fact that more people have bought PCs rather than Macs for the home, putting organisations under pressure to buy PCs because that is the environment with which their staff are familiar.
Adderley added that he felt positive about the recent restructuring at Apple. "The company has refocussed and seems to be dropping some of its less useful products such as the Newton, which lacks a useable interface."
He also applauded Apple's decision to go cross-platform, although believed it was a decision that should have been taken sooner. Had the company concentrated on software rather than hardware, "it might be in a completely different position today", Adderley believed.
Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder who recently returned to the company in an advisory capacity, felt much the same way. Speaking on the closing day of the company's Worldwide Developers Conference, he said Apple had "suffered for years from lousy engineering management. They were going in about 17 different directions".
Jobs is confident the company is now getting back on track, although he admitted "there's still a lot of work to be done. Apple has not turned around; it's in the process of turning around."
One topic that Jobs returned to again and again in his speech was the dominance of Microsoft and Intel. "The day we started Apple, IBM was more powerful than Microsoft and Intel are today. Should we have stopped? Should I have nudged Woz (Steve Wozniak, Apple's other co-founder) and told him that we shouldn't do this? No, we were too stupid to know anything or care."
He added: "I think it is incredibly stupid for us to believe that for Apple to survive, Microsoft has to fail. Microsoft is a fact of life.
It's like the air that we breathe. Or perhaps a better analogy is bottled water, because you have to buy it"
Echoing the opinion of some users, Jobs said he thought Apple should leave the hardware business to the clone manufacturers and concentrate instead on selling its software.
Apple would be wise to heed Jobs' advice, if the latest market research reports are to be believed. According to Dataquest, clone vendors are now a significant force in the Mac market and have helped to slow its decline.
While Apple's sales during the first quarter of this year dropped around 37%, overall Mac shipments in the period fell by just 1.3% year-on-year.
This difference was due to the flourishing sales of Mac clones, Dataquest said.
If Apple's turnaround plan fails to succeed, it won't be for want of trying or a lack of confidence from its major users. Greg Williams, head of developer relations at Apple, commented: "Apple has its act together, it has articulated a promising new direction, and it has shown concrete evidence that it will be able to deliver what it promised. And that's a good place to start one's climb back to greatness."
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