Rather like the Balkans, Apple has often been the battleground on which bigger powers have waged their wars. Microsoft's decision to take a stake in the troubled company has just highlighted this trend. The deal appears to provide a lifeline for Apple, but may end up tearing it apart at last.
Apple can almost forget about freedom of action now. In its current state of financial weakness and product transition, its policies will be heavily influenced by the two most powerful people in the industry. Perhaps the most complex job of the future chairman - whether Steve Jobs or another - will be to balance the conflicting demands of board member Larry Ellison and shareholder Bill Gates.
Although officially a personal posting, unconnected with Oracle, Ellison is bound to bring his company's anti-Microsoft politics into the boardroom with him. Microsoft has no voting rights and a small overall stake, and so in theory Ellison and the Oracle camp should have more influence over strategic direction.
But the technology deal with Microsoft - hinging on the cross-licensing of all patents, Java collaboration and Apple's commitment to support Internet Explorer - is far ranging and comes with a further $100 million of funding in the shape of patent payments and other meaures. It would be foolish to underestimate the amount of sway Microsoft can exert, even indirectly, over its latest partner - and the fall-out for other industry parties including Javasoft and Intel.
Of course, this has positives for Apple as well as negatives. The technology deal gives new endorsement to the Mac platform. Mac users will now receive new releases of applications such as Office simultaneously with Windows users, ensuring that the Mac will have a major software base for years to come, a reassurance Mac lovers have lacked recently. This is not trivial for Microsoft either - about 10 per cent of its revenues come from the Mac base and more timely upgrades of applications would help boost this - Microsoft was known to be frustrated at Apple kicking its heels over Office 97 for Mac.
The two companies will share a full cross-licence for all existing patents for five years, although it has not yet been decided whether they will license each other's operating systems. This means Microsoft will have access to some of the ease of use features of Mac OS, which could finally give it the technology it needs to make Windows as appealing as the Mac. Long term, of course, this could hasten the decline of the Mac OS.
"In many ways it's more advanced than what we've done on the Windows platform," said Gates, in a comment more telling than any other about the long term benefits to Microsoft of this deal. Apple's dilemma is not an enviable one - it has gained credibility and an equal footing for its own architecture with the mighty Windows, but what it has given away in return may ultimately benefit Windows at its own expense - unless the world does go the Ellison way and adopt browsers as the primary interface, in which case Apple seems likely to be sewn into IE and Microsoft?s JVM, despite its promises to maintain its distribution deal for Netscape?s browser too.
All this raises the spectre of Apple being ripped apart like a bone between two dogs. Ellison's interest in the company has been primarily to bolster his crusade against the Wintel PC model of computing and in favour of the network computer/Java/server-oriented approach. At the time of his abortive attempt to buy Apple, he spoke of the suitability of its technology for Internet devices.
The Microsoft deal would seem to limit these ambitions, even though it has brought Apple firmly into browser territory with the IE agreement. In fact, some analysts believe Java will be the great loser, particularly the 100% Pure Java initiative, which aims to ensure that all Java products conform to Sun's specifications. Apple chief financial officer Fred Anderson said the companies would collaborate to make Microsoft's and Apple's Java implementations compatible and to "have a better Java Virtual Machine". Although he would not confirm that Apple, a staunch supporter of 100% Pure Java, would endorse Microsoft Java extensions, which fall outside the spec, many observers believe the deal will splinter the Java world.
So much for the motivations of the two great powers - what of Apple itself? Clearly the most pressing need was for rescue money, and while Microsoft's total investment of $250 million hardly solves all the problems of a company that has lost $1.5 billion over the past 18 months, it provides a powerful financial and psychological boost. It may also protect Apple from hostile takeover, since Microsoft cannot sell its stake for at least three years. "This says to users and investors, if Microsoft believes in Apple, it can't be all bad," said one analyst. "But is this short term boost going to return to haunt Apple in the future?"
That is the real question. Apple's problem is that, despite its plucky independent stance over the years, it is always forced to sacrifice that independence and work with its arch enemies - usually to its own detriment and the frustration of its loyal user base. For years the Mac was the only serious alternative to the IBM PC - but then Apple formed the Power PC alliance with IBM and Motorola and was nearly acquired by Big Blue. The same pattern repeated with Microsoft - the Mac OS remained almost the lone voice speaking out against Windows in the PC world, but now Microsoft has a share in the company and has foisted its browser upon the Mac world.
While Apple appears to be a thorn in the side of these giants' quest for dominance, in fact it performs a useful purpose for them - maintaining just enough competition to divert antitrust authorities' attention. Some analysts believe the latest Microsoft move is less to do with extending its software into the Apple base, and everything to do with propping up an apparent competitor, in order to claim to the Justice Department that it has encouraged free rivalry. "Microsoft is looking after its best interests and will benefit in the eyes of antitrust officials by keeping Apple afloat," commented analyst Richard Scocozza of Brown Brothers Harriman.
But for a decade now, Apple has lacked the weight and political power to really provide a competitor for the giants, and when it suits them, they have managed to win it round to their technologies, killing Apple?s uniqueness and the independent development of its products as surely as if they had put it out of business altogether.
But of course, in the end, Apple has achieved one thing that was vital to its survival - convincing its users and investors that it will still be here in a year's time. Not just with the Microsoft dollars but the new-look board, with the strong character of Intuit chief Bill Campbell - a former Apple executive - to keep Jobs' and Ellison's feet on the ground. It may be that it has safeguarded its future at the expense of its identity or its ultimate survival as an independent, but at least it has retained, and even enhanced, its position at the heart of industry politics, and its role as a power broker. Jobs can comfort himself that at least the smaller power around which the giants fight their battles never fails to hit the headlines.
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